FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Paul Walters was a brick wall in the net for FC Cincinnati 2 this season. The 19-year-old made 18 starts and 73 saves in his first full year as a professional and has also been a vital member of the goalkeepers' room for the first team.
Walters, who signed a homegrown deal with FC Cincinnati to become the sixth academy product to join the first team, left Northwestern after a year with the Wildcats to rejoin the club and has been developing ever since. Part of that development plan includes learning and growing outside the club to broaden his horizons.
In the weeks between Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs and the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Walters was sent by the club to train with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim of the German Bundesliga for 12 days as a development assignment.
"It was important getting (Walters) over into another professional environment, seeing different ways of doing things and being around a different group of goalkeepers because he's only been around us," FCC Director of Goalkeeping coach Paul Rogers said of the opportunity. "Massive opportunity for him. With games not being available for him, it was just another avenue for him to develop."
Hoffenheim and FCC have a strategic partnership that allows the two clubs to collaborate on training, practices and ideas that can help both clubs improve their standing. This training session is another step in building that relationship and allowing Walters to grow.
"I think for us, having him go over there was good both from a football standpoint and a social standpoint – like a football social standpoint. We want him to experience a different environment, as all he has known is obviously Cincinnati," Rogers added. "His ability to mature off the field as a football player is as important for him to mature on the field. So those opportunities are massive. They're massive for any player."
Earlier this summer, Hoffenheim loaned 19-year-old midfielder Lucas Tamarez to FC Cincinnati 2 to help give him more development and training time in America while also having him earn playing time for the MLS NEXT Pro team, ultimately appearing in eight matches and making five starts while earning one assist in his 436 minutes with the 2's.
"First and foremost, I hope Paul was able to develop his personality, to be more or less on his own for the first time in Germany, to go about his everyday life in a country with a different language, and to get to know new personalities on and off the pitch," Phillipp Birker, the Head of Academy Goalkeeping and U23 goalkeeping coach at Hoffenheim said of Walters’ stay.
"And as a second point, I hope that he was able to look at a few things in terms of content that we might do differently, or work in exactly the same direction as the excellent goalkeeper training in Cincy. It always brings added value to get to know different training cultures."
Walters joined the FC Cincinnati Academy in 2019 as part of the inaugural class, playing for the U19 and U17 before committing to Northwestern. He attended Lakota West High School, the same as defender Nick Hagglund.
"I loved it," Walters said of his time in Germany. "They have very similar principles to what we do, but their whole focus is power."
Walters described the change of scenery as a benefit to his understanding of the global game and an opportunity to improve on places in his game he had yet to think of. While FCC focuses on technical approaches to things, Hoffenheim coaches opened his eyes to how to improve using power in his lower half to move in the box.
"Obviously, you're not gonna have a ton of progress in just that week. But you could see by the end of the week getting more accustomed to it," Walters added. "That's what I need to improve on. They gave me some really great pointers to work on.
"Overall great environment, great people, and it was cool so see how different clubs and cultures develop their keepers."
The approach of sending players to other clubs for learning opportunities is common to Walters, Rogers explains. While Roman Celentano currently starts for FC Cincinnati's first team and was a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2023, Rogers believes that had Celentano not been forced into action at the beginning of the 2022 season, he too would be sent on these excursions.
Now back stateside for the offseason, Walters had plenty of tips to work on individually, all with the sign-off from Rogers. But at the end of it, the experience gained from visiting the partner club in Germany's southern federal province of Baden-Württemberg and seeing how they do things is vital to the growth of any player.
To learn more about FC Cincinnati’s common value club alliance with Hoffenheim, click here.