A playful rivalry quickly followed Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft broadcast last week.
After two of the UW’s best center backs were selected in the opening round — a first for the program — Ethan Bartlow joked he’ll now have to unfollow former teammate Freddy Kleemann on Instagram.
“I thought we were pretty close,” Kleemann said after being told Bartlow’s remark. “If he unfollows me, I might have to unfollow him back. But actually I’m increasing in followers.”
Whether they’re trading jabs on social media or battling head-to-head in an MLS match, it’s unlikely anything will be able to break the bond the two former Huskies share as they embark on new journeys. That much was evident in their reactions after being drafted last Thursday.
Bartlow, who signed a Generation Adidas contract earlier in the week, was the first of the two selected, going No. 6 overall to the Houston Dynamo FC. Then Kleemann, who wasn’t guaranteed to be drafted in the first round, was nabbed by the league’s newest team, Austin FC, with the No. 11 pick.
UW held a small gathering at Husky Stadium for the event, the pair finding each other for a long embrace after hugs with their respective families. Both immediately pointed to their childhood days, running around 60 Acres Park in Redmond as their fathers played for Angelo’s Soccer Club in the Greater Seattle Soccer League.
Gerd Kleemann was a center midfielder obsessed with soccer. Phil Bartlow was a fierce defender who’s part of local soccer royalty after helping Cascade High win the 1987 Class 4A boys state championship.
Phil died in September 2016 of cancer. He was 47.
“It was his dream and now it’s mine,” said Ethan of being drafted. He was in high school at The Overlake School at the time of his father’s death. “It’s been realized at this point, so it’s pretty exciting. I can only imagine, but he would have been very excited for me.”
Freddy’s family relocated to California during his sophomore year of high school. But Freddy and Ethan rekindled their friendship when they became teammates at UW in 2017. Freddy said he could see the mixture of relief and joy in his friend’s face when Houston coach Tab Ramos announced Bartlow’s name.
“(Ethan) did have a tough time and soccer really helped him focus and do something that would make his dad proud,” Kleemann said. “Bartlow used that as fuel, propelling him to the top of the soccer world in college. And you could see his relief, he was close to crying. He’s usually the most cool, confident, no-nerves guy but (Thursday) you could see it meant a lot to him and it was a great day for him and his family.”
Both players plan to begin their pro careers this weekend by traveling to Texas and joining their respective teams. MLS plans to kick off its season April 3 but the league and the MLS Players Association have yet to settle terms for their new collective-bargaining agreement.
It’s already been over a year since Kleemann and Bartlow have played a sanctioned soccer match. The Pac-12 canceled the 2020 season due to the pandemic and is preparing for a spring 2021 schedule.
The defenders are leaving as 2019 Pac-12 champions. With the duo anchoring the defense, the Huskies only conceded 14 goals en route to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Bartlow was named the conference’s Defender of the Year, also totaling five goals in 2019.
Kleemann was in the starting lineup for 15 of Washington’s clean sheets. While he credits the season and playing with Bartlow for bumping up his draft stock, Kleemann also said he benefited from quarantine where he used the time to improve his weaknesses on the field and sharpen his mental focus.
“For the first five months (of the pandemic), we weren’t allowed to train with them,” UW men’s soccer coach Jamie Clark said. “Freddy physically transformed over that period to become a much, much better athlete. He did every possible workout that he could with our strength and conditioning people. Ethan did well, but Freddy really changed. … It’s an honor to see those guys move on and progress.”
Kleemann signing with an expansion franchise might give him an opportunity to play as a rookie. Ramos is known for developing young, U.S. talent but also signed some veteran defenders to allow time for players like Bartlow to adjust.
“I appreciate that there’s not a whole lot of pressure on me,” Bartlow said. “At the same time, I’ll put that kind of pressure on myself to become as good as I can and contribute to the team right away if I’m able to. Houston has a championship pedigree in its past. My hope is to help them get back to where they belong.”
Regardless of what happens with their social media accounts, Kleemann and Bartlow said there are plans to visit each other in person since they’re headed to the same state.
UW keeper Andrew Morrison is also from Houston, so depending on COVID-related restrictions, his family is available for support as Bartlow and Kleemann adjust to being pros and friendly rivals.
“I’ve never been in an environment where every single day you go to work and you’re in the locker room and you go train with your best friends,” Kleemann said of UW. “On the professional level, I don’t know if it’s going to be that way and definitely before college it wasn’t like that. … The special bonds you form in college is what I’ll take away and that includes Bartlow because we were partners there in the back. We had one season together and without him, I don’t think I would be where I am now.”