My start in the game was at the age of 6, watching my 11-year-old brother play with his travel team. As just about any younger brother/sister knows, we typically want to follow in the footsteps of our elder siblings. When we moved to Mississippi, I began to play on a recreational team in Hattiesburg, and I found out that I happened to be pretty good. Since I was an athletic player with decent ball control, I dominated the players in my age group, so much so that I had to play two age groups up. I had played forward my whole life, but when I moved to the capital, Jackson, the coach thought my pace would be put to better use on the back-line. There, I began to analyze the game better. I could see the whole field and communicate where my teammates should be to make plays. It’s also where I honed my skills of the art of kicking people. Our favorite drill was one where teammates faced each other five feet away from the ball, and we would have to sprint to the middle and “stick” each other with a hard tackle. The way you could use your momentum, put in a crunching tackle and watch them fall to the ground almost gave me more joy than scoring goals.
Once I knew I was going to move to North Carolina in 2001, I realized that my ball control had to be better. The year before, my team had played against the NC ODP team (Olympic Developmental Program) in a regional event and they destroyed us. They were quicker, more technical, and solid defensively. I felt I could keep up with them with my pace and shut down attackers, but I understood that my ball control had to improve. So I decided, with the help of a parents’ allowance promise, to stay in my backyard for at least an hour to work on ball control. I mostly did dribbling drills, worked on my jugging, and knocked the ball against the wall and trapped it. My skills got better and I felt that I was ready to make the move. I made the CASL Elite team in Raleigh after a few games with the second side, I felt good about accomplishing that but understood I needed to do more to crack the starting XI because I was still among talented players. With hard-work and determination, I became an automatic starter and caught the eye of college teams.
Some of the club coaches were enamored with the Serie A and called me Lillian Thuram since I was always tactically aware and could play both central half and fullback. They gave me a jersey of his and a couple of videos of his games. The Frenchman became my favorite player and I tried to emulate his elegant manner of play.
I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and played all four years, becoming an All-Conference player and winning several individual awards. A pro career in the MLS did not work out for me, despite being drafted by Chivas USA, so I decided to join one of my childhood friends and play in New Zealand for a season. It was an exciting time, learning a different culture and playing with a wide range of international players. After a successful season, I wanted something more than trying to chase the dream of playing professional soccer, that fire left me and I wanted to do something in the game that would last me the next 20 to 30 years. I decided to head back US to find a job and decide my next move. I didn’t think I was ready to coach yet; I was always talkative and a leader on the field, but I didn’t feel I was ready to lead a team from a coaching perspective. However I found that scouting fit what I wanted to do. I watch games, identify talented players, and report my findings. Since 2011, I’ve traveled up and down the East Coast watching college and lower level professional matches, and I can say I love every minute of it.
I started to follow the game after the 1994 World Cup, when the tournament was in the United Sates. It piqued my interest, mainly because I was a young boy starting to play the sport. It was something about the passion of the game that intrigued me. After the incredibly exciting and intense final between Brazil and Italy, it made me realize soccer was a game I was going to play for a long time, but also the sport I wanted to follow closely and watch passionately.
My love affair with Valencia started during the 2000 Champions League final, when they faced Real Madrid. Even though they were played off the park and lost by a 3-0 score line, I enjoyed watching the team and liked the pieces they had. Players like Gaizka Mendieta, Santiago Cañizares, and Claudio Lopez were among those that drew my attention.
After the match, I tried to follow them through the next season although the only matches I was able to watch were the Champions League games, I remember coming home straight from school and being glued to the TV during every Valencia match when they made another magical run to a final against Bayern Munich. My heart stopped a couple of times during the match and especially on penalty kicks. When Mauricio Pellegrino missed his penalty and Los Che lost their second consecutive final, I stomped to my room and flipped over a few things before finally calming down. I still was proud of what they accomplished; it’s hard to make one Champions League final, but making it consecutive times? That takes a lot of hard work and dedication. My fondness grew and I decided at that moment, I found the team I will support for the rest of my life.
I have been through the ups (those Champions League finals, multiple La Liga titles and UEFA Cup glory), and the downs (poor management leading to massive debt, the selling of our key players, and our current situation where the ownership of the club is under debate) but my cautious optimism remains that someday I will celebrate another trophy.