Canadian Alex Comsia emerges mentally stronger from painful shootout loss

Sometimes caring so much comes with a cost.

Canadian centre back Alex Comsia learned that the hard way in December 2016 when his North Carolina Tar Heels took on Stanford in the semifinals of the NCAA men's soccer tournament at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium.

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After a scoreless draw through regulation and extra time, the teams went to penalty kicks. The first 19 players made their penalties. Then Comsia sent his kick over the crossbar.

"That was crushing, to be quite honest with you," Comsia said.

He didn't sleep a wink that night. And it took months to process the experience, all the time trying to keep it in perspective.

"People go through way worse in life. It's not the end of the world that you miss a PK, there's way worse," he said. "But (it hurt) because I cared so much about the team and I knew that was our year to win it. And I wanted the national championship so bad for our seniors."

Today the 22-year-old from North Vancouver takes pride in how he responded to the season-ending setback.

"It definitely made me stronger mentally on how to respond to a failure," he said. "Because that was the ultimate failure."

"It's natural to feel down after that moment. But I responded and I'm very proud of how I did it," he added.

The six-foot 175-pound Comsia was named ACC Defender of the Year as a senior and, along with Victoria defender Callum Montgomery of UNC-Charlotte, was a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy that goes to the top NCAA soccer player.

The two are among six Canadians at the MLS Combine in Orlando, looking to add to their credentials ahead of Friday's SuperDraft in Chicago.

The others are University of Maryland goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (Pickering, Ont.), Syracuse forward Tajon Buchanan (Brampton, Ont.), Simon Fraser winger-forward Mamadi Camara (Montreal) and Syracuse defender Kamal Miller (Toronto).

St. Clair and Buchanan are underclassmen who signed Generation Adidas contracts, which add to their value because the deals don't count against team salary caps.

The oldest of five siblings — four boys and a girl — Comsia doesn't have far to look for inspiration. Sister Eleanor, who is two years younger, has Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder.

"She's very special to me," he said. "Whenever I think that I'm going through some difficulty, I think about her."

He recalls failing to make a local team when he was 10 years old, leading his dad to question whether he should keep playing soccer. Alex remembers tearfully saying yes.

Then, prior to his next tryout, his father took him to see his sister compete in rhythmic gymnastics.

"I was really, really, really, really emotional after seeing it — like inspired, hungry. It was raw emotion seeing my sister perform like that. I was like 'You know what, I've got to put everything in perspective.'

"I was young to even think about this. And then I went and killed the tryout. Since then I haven't really looked back."

While Comsia was drawn to North Carolina by the school's excellent reputation and beautiful campus, he says the soccer team's culture was the biggest factor.

"The coach and the entire staff were like 'This is how we do things. This is the culture. We're not going to promise you anything. But if you work hard and buy into our process, you'll do well."

Comsia had plenty of role models when he got to North Carolina. He played between Jonathan Campbell and Jordan McCrary as a freshman and with Walker Hume and Colton Storm as a freshman. All four went on to MLS.

Comsia was thrown into the deep end in 2015 as a freshman when Hume went down in the pre-season with an injury. The Tar Heels won 11 of their first 12 contests, but a tough outing against Wake Forest knocked Comsia down the depth chart.

As a sophomore, Comsia re-established himself as a starter — a position he held the rest of the way.

He describes himself as an aggressive centre back, good with both feet, who likes to play out of the back. Not to mention competitive.

"I've always been just so competitive. And I want to win everything. I guess that's easy to say because everyone wants to win everything. But I really am obsessed with it sometimes."

He has not had to take another penalty. The Tar Heels have avoided penalty shotouts since Houston.

Off the field, Comsia is equally motivated. An academic all-American, he attended summer school four years in a row to complete his bachelor's degree in business administration in mid-December — with a minor in Spanish.

Comsia's leadership qualities are shown by the number of times he has captained his team, starting at the provincial level with the B.C. under-13 and -14 teams. He captained the Tar Heels as a senior.

His resume includes a brief training stint in France with Evian Thonon Gaillard FC before joining the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program in 2011, where he found himself surrounded by the likes of Kianz Froese, Marco Bustos, Marco Carducci, Ben McKendry, Ben Fisk, Caleb Clarke, Bryce Alderson and Sam Adekugbe.

"I'd put our Whitecaps team back then, U-16, U-17 up against anyone," Comsia said proudly.

Two years later, after representing Canada at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, he spent two years with Strasbourg's under-19 team in France.

He felt he needed a new challenge.

He got it in spades. First he had to wait some two months for his international transfer certificate. Then he had to work his way up through a talented roster.

Comsia became a starter the next season, even serving as captain for some games.

France was ideal since it was his mother's birthplace. Comsia attended French immersion and is bilingual.

His next stop was Chapel Hill, where he played in 80 games — including 75 starts — over his four years at North Carolina.

"It's been absolutely incredible," he said of his time as a Tar Heel. "It was the best decision of my life to go there — in all aspects, not just soccer.

"I'm very lucky. I mean I worked for it but I'm also very lucky to be where I am today and to have had the opportunity to go to UNC. It was very special."

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