Drugs 0, MLS 1: "They saved my life," says Real Salt Lake's new star
Ã¢ÂÂThey didnÃ¢ÂÂt just save my dream, they saved my life.Ã¢ÂÂ ThatÃ¢ÂÂs how SebastiÃÂ¡n VelÃÂ¡squez perceives Real Salt LakeÃ¢ÂÂs decision to select him during the MLS Superdraft in January.
After a whirlwind few months, the rookie reflects upon the moment he found out heÃ¢ÂÂd be making his competitive bow against league champions LA Galaxy. Ã¢ÂÂI saw my name on the board [the night before] and I just started grinding my teeth,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂI was really nervous. In my mind I remembered what a friend from back in Colombia had told me: itÃ¢ÂÂs two goals, 22 people on the field, and three referees. Just go out there and have fun.Ã¢ÂÂ
To truly comprehend his journey, you must go back. Born in Colombia's second city MedellÃÂn, VelÃÂ¡squez moved to the US with his mother at the age of two. Throughout his youth he went to school and played club soccer with the aim of one day playing the game professionally.
At 17, his first chance came. Offered a trial with Barcelona after impressing their former striker Steve Archibald, VelÃÂ¡squez began an intense training regiment in preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Ã¢ÂÂI was good friends with a guy called Anthony Solomon. He owned an artificial pitch called Carolina Indoor Soccer,Ã¢ÂÂ he explains. Ã¢ÂÂHe would let me have the keys so I could start at six or seven in the morning till late at night. When I found out about the Barcelona trial, I spent eight months working and sleeping there Ã¢ÂÂ it had a couch in the building. IÃ¢ÂÂd do things like shooting, running with weights on my legs, at a good pace. All kinds of things.Ã¢ÂÂ
He describes the trial with Barcelona as an unforgettable experience, but it failed to provide a contract, as did a subsequent spell with local rivals Espanyol. Undeterred, VelÃÂ¡squez returned to the US to play college soccer for Spartanburg Methodist College. The school not only helped him financially, but provided him with what he describes as an excellent soccer program.
After a two-year apprenticeship, VelÃÂ¡squez was ready to move on. Having agreed to join Clemson University, he received a shock phone call: Ã¢ÂÂThey told me they had heard about my try-outs in Europe and that because of that I was ineligible Ã¢ÂÂ I had no idea.Ã¢ÂÂ
With the college route apparently blocked and his dream seemingly over, VelÃÂ¡squez had little idea what to do. His mother was now back home in Colombia, which at the time seemed the only option. Ã¢ÂÂI visited Colombia three times [in the space of a year] to see if I could fit into the lifestyle and adjust to it.Ã¢ÂÂ
Chasing down Landon Donovan for RSL against the Galaxy
As VelÃÂ¡squez begins to elaborate, he reveals the culture shock. Ã¢ÂÂIn Colombia thereÃ¢ÂÂs not as much security as there is in this country,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂThere you can drink whatever age you want; you can do drugs on the corner of a soccer field.Ã¢ÂÂ
With his mother also living in one of the most dangerous areas, Pedregal, VelÃÂ¡squez provides a harrowing example of day-to-day life on a gangland frontline. Ã¢ÂÂI remember when sheÃ¢ÂÂd call me crying and you could hear the shootings outside between the gangs. I didnÃ¢ÂÂt want to go into that.
"When youÃ¢ÂÂre young there, if people donÃ¢ÂÂt know you they're always going to ask Ã¢ÂÂWho is that? Is he trying to take over our territory?Ã¢ÂÂ I didnÃ¢ÂÂt want to be a part of that. I want to be safe and not make bad decisions.Ã¢ÂÂ
ItÃ¢ÂÂs at this point you begin to understand why VelÃÂ¡squez is so grateful to Real Salt Lake. Already possessing a one-way ticket to Colombia, he made a vital final phone call. Ã¢ÂÂIt was the best decision IÃ¢ÂÂve ever made in my life.
"I was thinking about doing it, and I asked my college coach. He said I should, but I didnÃ¢ÂÂt want to give him the news I wasnÃ¢ÂÂt going to Clemson. Five minutes later, my professional life changed forever. If I hadnÃ¢ÂÂt made that call there would have been no SebastiÃÂ¡n in MLS.Ã¢ÂÂ
At this stage it was only a trial, and as VelÃÂ¡squez had already learned, that was no guarantee of being picked up. Huddled with his mother around a computer back in Colombia, VelÃÂ¡squez watched the Superdraft process unfold Ã¢ÂÂ all the time hoping and praying.
Ã¢ÂÂWhen the first two drafts got picked, my mom got nervous. I just sat there and said 'DonÃ¢ÂÂt worry, things will work out, stay positive'. As soon as they picked meÃ¢ÂÂ¦ man, I just started crying Ã¢ÂÂ thatÃ¢ÂÂs all I did, was cry.Ã¢ÂÂ
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a flicker in his voice as he recalls the moment that made this all possible. Selected at No.36, Sebastian VelÃÂ¡squez was now a professional soccer player. As he begins to settle into life in Utah, he hasn't forgotten his mother. Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂre looking at that right now and her paperwork situation,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂRSL is helping me with that. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve put me on to the immigration lawyers, so hopefully I can get her back here or help out economically.Ã¢ÂÂ
Proud of his Colombian roots at a club with a heavy South American influence, VelÃÂ¡squez has fit into the squad seamlessly, even gaining a nickname. Ã¢ÂÂEl MofetaÃ¢ÂÂ (Ã¢ÂÂThe SkunkÃ¢ÂÂ) refers to the blonde and black hair that two teammates shaved off last week, something he takes in good spirits.
He may be living life one day at a time, but what does the future hold for VelÃÂ¡squez? Ã¢ÂÂSomeday I want to be an agent,Ã¢ÂÂ he declares. But he wouldn't be a merciless money-mad merchandiser: his reasons are far more positive. Ã¢ÂÂSo I can go to these different spots where I know things are bad, give my hand to a kid and say Ã¢ÂÂThere's green land on the other side of the hill; you do have an opportunity at life.Ã¢ÂÂ ItÃ¢ÂÂs a noble wish and one that you hope he is able to complete.
For the time being, however, his aim is simple Ã¢ÂÂ and he believes achievable under the stewardship of coach Jason Kreis. Ã¢ÂÂI want to learn something new each day and become a better player. Jason Kreis is an incredible coach. HeÃ¢ÂÂs always there for you. I have so much respect for him that it feels like a father and son relationship.Ã¢ÂÂ