Tucker Bone was never quite sure how far soccer could take him.
He started kicking balls into goals in recreational leagues when he was 5 years old. At 9, he was playing competitively for a youth club near Granite Bay, Calif.
“By the time I got into high school, it was realistic that I could play in college,” Bone said.
But what about the professional ranks? Did Bone have the potential to play in Major League Soccer, where his idols David Beckham and Clint Dempsey created a flurry of highlights?
After this week, Bone is closer to answering that question. He competed in the MLS Combine in Orlando and is now in Chicago, awaiting Friday’s SuperDraft. Bone called the combine an “amazing” experience, partly because of the league’s lavish accommodations for its potential future players.
“Just playing at that level and, you know, we show up at the hotel and it’s a Ritz-Carlton,” Bone told Pro Soccer USA by phone from Chicago. “There was literally nothing to complain about. Getting to know some of these guys over the past few days is definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
At the combine, Bone got to chat with personnel from several MLS teams about how he might fit into their systems. A typical No. 10, Bone was the Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year and a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann trophy in 2018 at the United States Air Force Academy.
That last part — coming from the Air Force Academy — has left teams with questions.
Will Bone have to sit out to fulfill his military obligations? Can he only play for teams near Air Force bases? Will the current government shutdown impact his eligibility?
The answers are: probably not, no and no.
For that first one to be a definitive no, the Air Force must agree with how MLS teams rate Bone and accept him into the World Class Athlete Program, also known as WCAP. Being accepted would accelerate Bone’s path to a career in professional soccer.
The program was created so Air Force athletes could train for the Olympics and “allows top-ranked Soldier-athletes to perform at the international level while also serving their nation in the military,” according to the WCAP website.
If accepted, Bone could train with and play in games for MLS clubs. After two years, Bone can go into the Air Force reserves and continue as a professional athlete.
“It’s not too familiar, because we don’t get a lot of athletes that (turn professional), but they do have these programs in place so an athlete can pursue this sort of career,” Bone said. “I’ve tried to find out as much as I can about it and I’ve tried to be transparent with teams about it. (The Air Force) wants to see you get drafted by a team and see that you’re a legitimate candidate.
“I don’t see a situation in which the WCAP program wouldn’t work out.”
— WACsports (@WACsports) November 7, 2018
What could impact Bone is whoever becomes the next defense secretary. In 2017, former defense secretary James Mattis — who resigned last month — reversed a Defense Department policy enacted in May 2016 that allowed athletes from service academies to apply for a waiver to defer their military commitments to play pro sports. That policy is how former Navy football players Joe Cardona and Keenan Reynolds got the opportunity to play in the NFL.
If a new defense secretary brought the waiver system back, Bone would have another avenue to get to the pro ranks should the WCAP program not work out.
Bone is confident he’ll be able to play almost immediately for whichever MLS team spends a pick on him. The only hurdle he can’t avoid is that he must finish out this semester at the Air Force Academy. He’ll miss preseason and a handful of games, but can join a club shortly after graduation in May.
Even if teams are still uncertain about Bone’s eligibility, he’s shown talent that might make him worth the risk. At the combine, he revealed his agility by posting the second-fastest shuttle time of 3.98 seconds. In one of the games, he displayed his ability to create goals by unlocking the defense with a smooth and timely assist to Nils Bruening.
Playing for the Air Force Falcons in Colorado Springs, Colo., Bone was a legitimate problem for the defenses of college soccer. A three-time All-WAC first team selection, Bone led the Falcons to two NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 this past season. Air Force had winning records against rivals Army and Navy during his time there.
And each year at Air Force, Bone improved. Two goals and three assists as a freshman, five goals and six assists as a sophomore, five goals and seven assists as a junior, and 13 goals and six assists in his final campaign.
Bone typically starred as an attacking midfielder in the Falcons’ aggressive and high-pressing system, but he also played a bit on the wing. He credited his growth from his junior to senior season to spending time with a Premier Development League club, the under-23 ranks of the second-tier United Soccer League Championship Colorado Switchbacks.
“I spent a lot of time this past offseason just training over the summer,” Bone said. “That helped a bunch, to sort of keep my endurance and to give me time to focus more on scoring goals. I knew I needed (to score more) come senior season, so I practiced a lot of shooting from outside of the box.”
Not only did Bone’s statistics see a bump each year he was at Air Force, but he felt like the academy helped him evolve off the field, and that in-turn helped him on the pitch.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about how you develop as a person and how that translates to you being a professional on the field. I think they’re very closely connected,” Bone said. “I matured more and I think that translated to the soccer field. I was making better decisions on the ball, I was getting stronger, I was getting quicker, faster, I grew into my body more.”
— WACsports (@WACsports) September 23, 2018
Like soccer, the Air Force is something Bone knew he wanted to be part of since he was a child. Both his father and his uncle were pilots for the U.S. military. His father flew cargo aircrafts and his uncle operated Black Hawk helicopters, he said.
An Air Force soccer coach noticed Bone as a high school student when he played with club team Sacramento United at a youth tournament in Denver. They started emailing, then Bone visited the campus.
A few other schools were interested in the 5-foot-11 midfielder, such as Notre Dame, Loyola Chicago and Seattle, but just one other college — Pacific — was going to give him a full scholarship.
In a moment of self-awareness, Bone knew Air Force would be test, but that it was also the right fit for him.
“In high school, I liked to mess around with my friends quite a bit and I sort of realized that, had I gone to any other university that would’ve remained unchecked and I probably wouldn’t have matured as much as I did,” Bone said. “I kind of knew that about myself and I was ready to take on that challenge of becoming a more well-rounded person.”
The task for Bone now will be balancing a military commitment and his professional soccer dream. He hopes on Friday he’ll take a step closer to putting on professional kit and to stepping on an MLS pitch.
But Bone also knows soccer isn’t forever, and at some point, he may be called on to don his military gear and fly.
And he’s OK with that. It’s what he signed up for.
“I plan on serving out my commitment and potentially serving out a long Air Force career,” Bone said. “I couldn’t have gotten here without the staff at Air Force. They played a key role in me being who I am today.”