Miguel Aguilar was nervous.
He was 15 years old and had just been informed that he wasn’t at CASA Boca’s 16-and-under tryout.
No, the 86 kids – if you could still call them that — loosening up around him were vying for one of 20 on the 18-and-under team. It was a sweltering Sacramento evening, and the Encina Prep high schooler barely knew anyone there.
For someone who’d lived in poverty for much of his life, the reality of trying out for one of the city’s major clubs in a multi-million dollar soccer complex – Granite Regional Park – would usually inspire awe, if the Mexican immigrant wasn’t so focused on making an impression.
Aguilar, whose D.C. United team begins the 2015 MLS season Saturday vs. Montreal, has never cast an imposing figure, but if there was a time he looked particularly slight, it was this tryout, where he’d careen into 50-50 challenges with high school seniors.
Physically, the difference between ages 15 and 18 is immense.
“I was thinking, ‘Woah, these guys are a lot bigger and older,’” Aguilar reminisces during a February phone call. “During the tryout, I didn’t think I’d make the team.”
Across the facility, Casa Boca head coach Tibor Pelle knew immediately he’d stumbled upon someone special.
“It may sound cliché, but Migue [MEEG-ay] already played the game like a man,” Pelle recalls of the mysterious 15-year-old kid who’d randomly arrived at tryouts. “You could see the hunger he exhibited in every moment – when he didn’t have the ball, he’d move off it to create space. Otherwise, he was working hard to win the ball back.
“[Aguilar] could bend the game to his will,” Pelle adds, “and he supplemented it with technical proficiency.”
Needless to say, Aguilar made Casa Boca’s U-18 squad as a 15-year-old. Later, Aguilar would learn that, at the tryout, he was actually the first player Pelle pointed out to his fellow coaches.
That May day was the beginning of a powerful friendship between Aguilar and Pelle, one that would shape their lives for years to come.
Tibor Pelle’s soccer network runs deep. Many elite youth coaches can tout an “A” license, but few can phone Sigi Schmid on a whim.
Even though the Seattle Sounders gaffer had coached him at UCLA, Pelle didn’t feel comfortable asking for tickets as a favor – especially since it was the Sounders’ first season in MLS — so he merely sent a text to Schmid, mentioning that he was in Tacoma with CASA Boca at the NSCAA College Showcase, before wishing him luck in that day’s match against the Chicago Fire.
Coming off a 2008 campaign in which he was chosen as MLS Coach of the Year for the Columbus Crew, Schmid – chosen to guide an expansion club in a soccer-crazed city — was already a larger-than-life figure in Seattle, so it wasn’t surprising that he was able to secure 20 tickets “out of a hat” for Pelle and his club.
A small favor from Schmid produced an indelible memory for Miguel Aguilar, who’d never been to a professional soccer game – much less one with over 30,000 people jumping, screaming and singing.
The 15-year-old marveled at the intensity: two red cards were handed out that day, one to ex-Arsenal attacker Freddie Ljungberg. He watched Mexican futbol hero Cuauhtemoc Blanco effortlessly direct the Fire attack despite standing only 5’9″ and weighing 160 pounds (let’s face it, he was probably a little heavier than he was listed at the time).
After taking in his first pro match, reaching Major League Soccer became a goal for Miguel Aguilar. Pelle remembers the post-game chat where he told Aguilar that, if he continued to develop as a player, it was possible he could reach the top tier of American soccer.
That weekend’s College Showcase had a lasting impact on Aguilar’s soccer career for another reason, too, as an exchange between Pelle and his former college opponent, Erik Visser, opened more doors.
During a showcase match, Visser – then men’s soccer head coach at the University of San Francisco — walked over to Pelle and asked, “So what do you have here?”
“You tell me what I’ve got,” Pelle retorted, motioning toward the field where CASA Boca was playing.
Five minutes later, Visser returned to Pelle, curiosity piqued, pointing at Aguilar.
“You can’t take him,” Pelle quipped.
“Why not? You’ve got him wrapped up for UCLA?” asked Visser, hinting at Pelle’s allegiance to his alma mater.
“He’s 15,” the CASA Boca coach replied.
“Damn. That kid is a man!” Visser responded, according to Pelle’s recount. “Please tell me he has around a 3.0 [grade point average].”
“Not even close,” said Pelle.
As Pelle remembers, Visser reacted in frustration, lamenting the fact that many talented kids from low-income backgrounds couldn’t cut it in the classroom.
When the San Francisco head coach was finished on his rant, Pelle posed one final question, this time with a smirk.
“What, you’re not interested in 4.0s?”
The connection between Visser, USF and Aguilar was formed, just two months after a shy Mexican kid had stuck his nose in the wrong tryout.
You need to watch Aguilar for a long time to determine his dominant foot. Heck, it took D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen most of training camp, Pelle notes.
Asking Aguilar about his background – both soccer and personal — is a risky endeavor. Through the phone, he’s shy, polite and well-spoken, but not about to reveal many specifics about a troubled childhood. But we know quite a bit, thanks to the Sacramento Bee’s Marcos Breton.
Growing up in Juarez, Mexico, Aguilar knew poverty and depression. He moved nine times by age 11. His mother raised him and two older siblings, a brother and a sister. In 2010, Aguilar admitted to Breton the following:
“I was pretty much depressed. I missed my brother, who was like my father. It became kind of hopeless as I came home every day to an empty refrigerator. I would cry every day at home. I gave up on school for a while.”
When his brother, sister and mother were out of the house – barely allowing the family to scrape by financially – the youngest child spent virtually every moment with a soccer at his foot.
“Playing just made me feel better,” Aguilar explains in our interview. “It was an escape that allowed me to forget about everything else for a while. It helped me get through the rougher times and definitely opened doors.”
Aguilar notes that, in Juarez, Mexico, he and his friends would play in the streets with an empty two-liter bottle of pop for a soccer ball.
“We always stayed close to friends who had birthdays coming up,” Aguilar recollects, “because we knew they’d be the next ones getting a ball as a gift.”
Aguilar’s sharpest memories, though, are of the times where he’d kick a ball around the house, alone.
“I’d dribble from the kitchen to another room and back until I got good, and then I’d go outside and kick the ball against a wall.”
His work by himself is a major reason why he’s such a “perfectly two-footed player” now, says Pelle.
“Off the wall, with his left foot, then his right foot, using both the inside and the outside – it became completely natural through repetition,” Pelle explains. “[The honed technique] allowed him to become creative and innovative in any situation.
“Coaches overestimate the contributions they make to player development,” adds Pelle, who spent three years guiding Aguilar’s CASA Boca team before merging with newly-formed Sacramento United in 2012. “It’s all about repetition – not coaching.”
Aguilar joined his first soccer team at age 6, and only because he was willing to lie.
“I was trying out for a local team where you had to be 9 or 10, and I lied to them that I was 9, and eventually my mom convinced the coach to let me train with them,” Aguilar says. “Later, I found out from the coach that he never fell for my lie – he let me on because he knew how badly I wanted to play.”
There’s a hole in this story, and it’s because no one interviewed felt comfortable shedding much light on Aguilar’s life between age 11 – when he immigrated to Sacramento from Juarez – and 15, when he tried out for Pelle’s CASA Boca squad.
What we do know is that Aguilar’s siblings and mother worked in restaurants and continued to move often. “The family didn’t have much money and lived in a dangerous area,” Pelle commented.
Pelle wasn’t the first Samaritan Aguilar met in America – his academic counselors at Encina Prep played a massive role among the “small village of people” that helped Aguilar stay out of trouble and inspire a sometimes apathetic English as a Second Language student to commit to his studies.
It’s not like Encina Prep was the perfect sanctuary for Aguilar. Although he graduated in 2011, the 2013 statistics aren’t pretty – and it’s doubtful they were any better two years prior, as sweeping academic reform came after Aguilar moved on.
The school’s student base is more underprivileged than diverse – 90 percent of the students are either black, white or Hispanic, but 88 percent come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households and almost exactly one-third are ESL. And, according to Pelle, a gang suppression unit existed on campus, which speaks volumes about the area’s safety.
Three more figures to give context to Aguilar’s schooling:
1) In his senior year, 3 percent of Encina students met or exceeded state standards in mathematics.
2) No more than 3 percent of Encina’s ESL students met or exceeded state standards in any of the four major subjects (English, math, social studies and science).
3) Encina has consistently had an API (Academic Performance Index) score of 1, which means it ranks in the lowest 10 percent of California schools.
That Aguilar could develop intellectually in this environment – while playing soccer – is a tribute to his own commitment, the instruction of his teachers and advisors, and later the sanctuary of Pelle’s household, as Aguilar slept on his club coach’s couch off and on from the first quarter of his sophomore year through his graduation day.
While his mother – who only spoke Spanish – worked feverishly to provide for her children, Aguilar grew close to Pelle’s family.
“Tibor took me under his wing,” Aguilar reflected. “He helped me develop as a player and a person. He and his wife, Maya, who’s like another mother to me, gave advice for life in general. They helped me with writing college essays, going on college visits – everything.”
Aguilar’s relationship with his own mother wasn’t strained, by any means, as she recognized that living with the Pelles kept Miguel out of trouble, gave him transportation options and insured he was part of a nurturing household. Aguilar’s father was never really in the picture.
None of the economic and home-life struggles carried over onto the field, where Aguilar was consistently brilliant.
Perhaps his breakthrough moment, though, was in Encina Prep’s first-ever boys soccer sectional title game – a crazy feat considering Encina was one of Sacramento’s oldest high schools. It was 2009, and Encina faced Capital Christian, an overwhelming favorite that had won the section the previous year. This Max Preps photo gallery does a nice job of setting the stage.
With the game tied late in regulation, Aguilar struck a “stunning goal,” according to Pelle, and was mobbed by his teammates as Encina captured its sectional championship.
“The ball was played from about 45 yards out, high and deep to the top of the penalty area. Miguel facing away, took the ball out of the air and popped it up, with two men on and volleyed it before it hit the ground into the back post. Nobody noticed until the video replay that the ball never actually hit the ground,” describes Pelle.
Following the victory – in what’s probably a microcosm of his youth – Aguilar ceremoniously tossed his tattered and ripped soccer shoes into a garbage can. Part of soccer’s beauty – in a world where it’s commonplace for youngsters to spend $200+ on new boots — is that the “haves” don’t always triumph over the “have-nots.”
The ensuing media coverage of Aguilar’s back-story and title-winning masterpiece caught the attention of college coaches around the nation, and scholarship offers flew in (to Pelle’s house, of course, which is still currently Aguilar’s primary, non-D.C. United mailing address).
At the time, Aguilar was firmly committed to attending the University of San Francisco, if they’d have him – remember Pelle’s encounter with Visser in 2008 – and he remained loyal to the first school that took interest in him.
In his senior high school season, Aguilar would lead Encina to a repeat sectional title – this one a little less dramatic.
If it wasn’t for the National Premier Soccer League, Aguilar might have been in for a rude welcoming at USF. (Or, at the very least, he may not have immediately cracked Visser’s starting lineup.)
Following his senior season at Encina, Aguilar got connected to the NPSL’s Sacramento team through one of CASA Boca’s coaches, Gary Messing, who doubled as an assistant for Ruben Mora’s Gold in the summer.
Sacramento’s side had won the NPSL title the previous year – a massive achievement – so Aguilar entered a serious soccer atmosphere on a team with high expectations.
“The soccer [in the NPSL] was very different from what I was used to,” Aguilar says. “These were grown men who’d been playing a lot longer than I had – there was also the physical aspect, but also learning to play faster was an adjustment.”
The Gold finished the 2011 regular season with a 7-4-3 (W-T-L) record, good enough for second place in the Northwest Region.
One NPSL match, in particular, sticks out in Tibor Pelle’s mind.
“It was against a team from SoCal, which had a few UCLA alums who never made Major League Soccer but had come pretty close. For instance, the center back who Migue made mincemeat of almost made it to the MLS.
“I told Migue after that match, ‘When you’re down, remember the confidence that you’re feeling right now.’”
After knocking off the San Diego Flash in the first round of the postseason, the Gold succumbed to the Hollywood United Hitmen, 1-0, after going down two men in the first half.
“[My first year with the Gold] was a very big help going into college,” Aguilar says, looking back. “I knew what to expect.”
Despite a 6-3-10 record in his freshman year at USF, Aguilar paced the Dons in scoring, notching five goals and three assists, starting 16 of 19 matches and earning a place on the West Coast Conference All-Freshman Team as well as the league’s all-conference second team.
The Mexican attacker’s goals weren’t against pushover foes, either. Aguilar tallied his first collegiate goal – a game-winner – against UNLV to give the Dons their first win of the year. He’d later find the back of the net against No. 18 Santa Clara, another eventual game-winner.
Aguilar returned to Sacramento for a second season in the NPSL, his confidence bolstered after the previous summer’s experience and then establishing himself as a collegiate striker.
“I came back the next summer [to the Gold] and started scoring goals,” he says. “I was better technically and tactically, and I’d put in a lot of work in the weight room. I was about 150 pounds in my freshman year, then between 160 and 165 during my junior season.”
Sacramento failed to reach the postseason (7-1-6 record) in Aguilar’s second year there, but his individual progress was noticeable — which would pave the way for his next opportunities. Plus, Aguilar received sound advice from Mora, who, as Pelle relays, is an expert at connecting with and encouraging athletes from lower-income backgrounds.
“Things [Mora] told me stuck with me,” Aguilar explains. “He said, ‘Always focus on your game and what’s going on around you [on the field]. There would be distractions in college, but keep your head on straight, stay focused and you’ll get your chance.”
Mora’s statement to the media was telling, too: “During his stint at the NPSL, he put defenders under tremendous pressure on both sides of the ball. He is very dynamic and a joy to not only coach but to watch play. We are proud of him and can say that the Gold was one of his first stepping stones and introduction the adult game.”
“[The two NPSL seasons were] a very good time for me to develop,” Aguilar admits. “Those were crucial years, playing in the summer with experienced players. If I had to go back and do my career again, I’d do the same thing.”
The soccer accolades continued to roll in for Aguilar.
After a sophomore year of three goals and one assist – while starting all 18 matches – he placed again on the All-WCC Second Team, then moved to the Seattle Sounders U-23 team in the summer.
Perhaps more impressive, though, was Aguilar’s selection to the WCC All-Academic Team – at a rigorous university, the sophomore pursued an ambitious double-major in finance and business administration. He’d eventually graduate with a 3.7 GPA – in just three-and-a-half years. While playing soccer.
Shortly after being drafted by D.C. United, Aguilar returned to Encina to speak about academics and opportunity.
The next 18 months were a blur of progress – Aguilar made the All-WCC Second Team for the third time, as a junior, then spent the summer with the Portland Timbers U-23 squad. Finally, in Aguilar’s senior season, USF finished with a winning record – 11-2-6 – for the first time in Aguilar’s stay, and the striker placed on the WCC First Team, accumulating four goals and three assists in the process.
After graduation, Aguilar’s futbol career moved at an exhilarating pace. He was invited to the Seattle Sounders’ combine, then impressed on the second day of the larger Major League Soccer Combine.
Watch MLS Soccer’s video highlights of Aguilar’s goal and assist in the second half (fast-forward to 1:45):http://www.mlssoccer.com/video/2015/01/11/highlights-predator-vs-nativo-mls-combine-2015
Following the combine, he wasn’t sure exactly where he’d fall in the league’s draft, but he’d certainly helped his stock immensely.
Back with his mother, brother, sister and others, Aguilar streamed the draft on his television through his laptop, waiting expectantly for his name to be called.
“It was very personal,” recalls Aguilar. “And there were a lot of kids running around.”
Tibor Pelle was watching intently, too, his heartbeat racing when he saw the Seattle Sounders trade up to No. 16. Aguilar’s CASA Boca coach and father-figure had put in a good word for Aguilar with Schmid – still the Sounders’ manager – but the defending U.S. Open Cup champions and Western Conference semifinalists passed, opting instead for Cristian Roldan, a midfielder from the University of Washington.
Pelle figured Leo Stoltz, an accomplished UCLA midfielder, would be off the board before Aguilar, but he saw D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen on the phone, then heard his own cell phone buzz shortly thereafter.
It was Aguilar, calling to tell Pelle that he was the newest member of D.C. United.
“I was all choked up,” says Pelle. “This was the culmination of a big family project. I was honored that I was the first one he called. We were both crying.”
While Aguilar made D.C. United’s roster out of camp – then scored his first professional goal on this missile against the Austin Aztex in the ATX Pro Challenge – the more touching story came from his initial trip from Seattle to Washington-Dulles, the D.C. airport.
Since he’d never left the Northwest, Aguilar had no idea what to expect from a Northeast winter. The Pelles bought him an REI ski jacket and left him with simple advice.
“This jacket will save your life. It will be colder [in D.C.] than anything you’ve ever experienced. Promise that you’ll wear it as you get off the plane.”
Hours later, Tibor Pelle’s phone buzzed again. He’d received an image in a text message of a smiling Aguilar, bundled up in a warm ski jacket in Washington, D.C.
The picture was a symbol of their relationship – the Pelles provided for Aguilar, giving a athletically blessed kid a chance to live out his dream in a safe haven, protecting him from a perilous neighborhood eager to erase any potential.