Big Cat Goalkeeping founder Neil Thompson recalls taking FC Cincinnati rookie Roman Celentano to visit some Premier League clubs when he was 12 years old. Thompson, who served as Celentano’s long-time trainer, was surprised to see the pre-teen passing around business cards introducing himself to the staffers he met at Sunderland and Newcastle.
Now Thompson looks back on that memory as an example of some of Celentano’s best traits — the quiet confidence, maturity and drive that helped him become the best goalkeeper in college during his time at Indiana University and FC Cincinnati’s No. 2 overall draft pick this year.
Celentano is competing for opportunities as a backup this season with FCC and says he is just trying to help the club however he can, but Thompson has no doubt about his ability to eventually challenge for a top spot as he gains experience and grows into being a professional.
“He’s quietly confident,” said Thompson, who began training Celentano when he was 10. “A shy guy as a kid wouldn’t go hand out those business cards. He’s so calm, quiet but yet so confident, something quite unique. You don’t see that. I think his biggest strength is his mind and that quiet confidence. He’s not too emotional so nothing really rocks his confidence or anything like that. He’s very composed. I think because he’s quietly confident, I think he gives everybody around him a sense of calm. He’s a positive guy that only wants the best for those around him. He doesn’t need all the limelight to be on him so he’s a great locker room guy. And the on-field strengths, that’s the easy part to explain. It doesn’t take long to see why he’s so special.”
Cincinnati opens the season Saturday at Austin FC with former Atlanta United backup Alec Kann expected to be the starter, but Kann and Celentano, drafted after a stellar three-year career at Indiana University, are the foundation in the rebuild of the goalkeeper unit. Three-year starter Przemyslaw Tyton has departed, and Celentano seemingly is competing with Kenneth Vermeer for the No. 2 role.
Celentano, a Generation adidas signing, was the first goalkeeper in Big Ten history to win the conference
“Goalkeeper of the Year” award twice, helping the Hoosiers to a pair of Big Ten regular-season championships and tournament championships his first two seasons in 2019 and 2020-21, as well as a College Cup national final as a sophomore in 2020-21. He finished with a 37-10-5 record over three years while allowing just 33 goals in 52 matches.
The Naperville, Ill., native left IU as the country’s active career leader in goals against average (0.619) and sat at No. 2 nationally in career save percentage (0.831) and solo shutouts (28).
Celentano said he hopes to bring that winning mentality to the professional level, and so far, the transition with the Orange and Blue is going well. He played 120 minutes this preseason without giving up a goal as FCC went 3-0-2.
“Obviously at first it was getting used to the new environment and the speed of play with professional players because coming from college it’s pretty much a different level,” Celentano told Queen City Press. “So it’s a little bit of time acclimating to the new level, but I think the past few weeks and such have been going well for me. I’ve gotten minutes in some of the preseason games, so I think I’m acclimating well.”
The 21-year-old finds himself in a familiar position having to work his way up the depth chart. Thompson said when Celentano joined Sockers FC Chicago, a U.S. Soccer Development Academy, he wasn’t the No. 1, but eventually earned that spot over former U.S. youth national team player Alex Budnik. At Indiana, he came in behind a senior and was training with the redshirt players when the Hoosiers tapped him to take over as the starter midway through his freshman year. He never looked back.
Thompson said when Celentano was younger, before he hit a growth spurt around age 15, others questioned how good he could be because he wasn’t as tall as some of the other goalkeepers. He was around 5-foot-4 at age 14 and also was young for his age group, but he showed enough talent that never concerned Thompson.
“I was always sort of banging the drum for him since he was a little boy, but he was always so small that it was kind of (a response of), ‘Yeah, he’s good but he’s small,’” Thompson said. “I would say, ‘He’s a special talent and he might grow, and even if he doesn’t, I think he’s still got a chance.’ You know, he’s very talented, and he worked hard. It’s not just like he was just given this talent. He worked really hard in training. We did hours and hours of training. We ended up traveling to multiple countries together. We went into different stadium tours and really like gave him that experience a young player would dream of.”
“We went on a tour when he was 15 and went to training with Blackburn Rovers, and Roman was clearly having a lot of pain and not necessarily moving around so well, which turned out to be a good sign because they were growing pains. He literally went from being this small, little guy to like a 6-foot-3 beast. As he got older more people started taking notice of him.”
Celentano was a two-star recruit out of high school, according to TopDrawerSoccer.com. He had offers to other Division I schools but another coach from Big Cat Goalkeeping, Zac Brown, took an assistant position with the IU men’s soccer team and had a headstart on recruiting Celentano.
Thompson continued helping Celentano even throughout college and arranged opportunities for him to train with Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union last summer to gain some MLS exposure and learn from the professionals with those clubs.
That turned out to be a path to FCC after former Union technical director Chris Albright was hired as Cincinnati’s new general manager in October and former Philadelphia assistant Pat Noonan later became the club’s new head coach. Albright and Noonan recalled Celentano’s training experience as one that put him on their radar.
“Before that I hadn’t had any real like professional experience in training and instead of going and playing in the PDL or the USL 2 over the summer with some of the college guys, I thought it was a good opportunity for me to get some training in some pro environments and see what the level was like and also make some connections,” Celentano said. “It was a great experience and I think a good move.”
Celentano thought those connection might pay off in the draft, but figured FC Cincinnati would be a long shot since the club had two first-round picks at No. 2 and 14. He wasn’t expecting to go second overall as a goalkeeper.
“I thought that’d be an ideal setup and a perfect spot for me to go to but that was just a wishful thinking at the time so I was ready to go wherever I could end up and make a difference,” Celentano said.
“But I’m just really happy that Cincinnati decided to give me a chance and opportunity with this great organization.”
“That’s a good sign that they have faith in me and to be a person they are looking forward like for the future potentially,” he added. “But I just think, obviously, goalkeeper is a big part of any team so I’m just happy to be a part of this group and help in any way that I can.”
A few days after the draft Albright said it was a bit much to expect a draft pick to contribute minutes as a rookie but noted Celentano’s path is up to him. Albright didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on a young player.
“We feel really comfortable with our staff and our ability to develop him,” Albright said last month. “… Look, he’s a young player, and he’s in that position you could argue that given that you can play well into your 30s, that he’s only in the infancy of his career. So, our job is to develop him and to put him in a position to succeed and what’s success early on as a young goalkeeper? It’s just getting better.”
Anything more than that would be a great bonus.
Celentano said the more experience he gets in training the more he feels comfortable. The speed of play requires him to be quicker thinking and making decisions, so the opportunity to get minutes in three preseason games was helpful.
Kann and Vermeer have been showing him how to build good training habits, and Celentano tries to soak in everything he can by watching them. New goalkeepers coach Paul Rogers has been “class” to work with as well, Celentano said.
“He has been great with me so far,” Celentano said. “He takes a lot of time with each one of us to make sure we’re doing certain things right. He’s very detail-oriented. And there’s a lot of thought behind the things that he does, and he likes to break things down when they need to be broken down, but he’s just been he’s been great with me personally, just making sure I develop the way that I need to and giving the time to me and the guys. He’s an awesome guy. I’m just happy to be able to work with him.”
Heading into opening week, it’s still unclear what FCC’s plan for Celentano is with Kann expected to start and a reserve team soon to launch with opportunities for first-team backups to get playing time. The club hasn’t announced anything about its MLS Next Pro team plans.
As the preseason was wrapping up, Celentano was just concerned with getting ready for the start of the season and not so much what his role would be. Asked what he’s trying to show the club, he said “consistency.” Thompson said FCC will get that and more from him.
“I don’t know a better shot stopper, or at least I haven’t worked with a better shot stopper than him,” said Thompson, who played professionally in England and has served as goalkeepers coach with the U.S. U-19 national team, as well as with LAFC’s academy. “It’s not just that he makes the saves like technically nice. He’ll make the save you’re not expected to make, and I think that’s a big factor. He’s good in one-on-one. He’s very dominant in the air like on crosses. He’s going to have to keep improving with his feet, but I don’t think he’s been in an environment where he’s really had to play, and now he’s at a higher level, he’ll be forced to play more. The game is going to be the best teacher for him. But, I think he’s the real deal.
“He has the ability to go as high as he wants to. Obviously, there are other factors: How much does he want it, the team around him and obviously he has to stay fit and healthy, but I think if he’s got the right people around him, the right culture to learn, he can be a top, top goalkeeper.”
Special thanks to Queen City Press founding sponsors:
Rhinehaus (@RhinehausOTR), Hangar937 (@Hangar937) on behalf of Mike Bowman, the Cincinnati Lions (@AVFC_Cincinnati), The Kathy Lamb Team at Thrive Mortgage, Margot Atelier (@margotatelier.us), Ryan Sparks (@TouchedArtist), Baron Von Steinhoist, The Stumpf Family, Roger Hayner, Mike Hudson, Duke Thomas (#UpTheGarys), Matt (@FCCincinnatus), Bryan Weigel, Brad Weigel, Ryan De La Rosa and David McDaniel. Join the sponsorship tier (check your membership settings) to have your name, organization or business recognized as well.