Drugs 0, MLS 1: “They saved my life,” says Real Salt Lake’s new star
“They didn’t just save my dream, they saved my life.” That’s how Sebastián Velásquez perceives Real Salt Lake’s decision to select him during the MLS Superdraft in January.
After a whirlwind few months, the rookie reflects upon the moment he found out he’d be making his competitive bow against league champions LA Galaxy. “I saw my name on the board [the night before] and I just started grinding my teeth,” he said. “I was really nervous. In my mind I remembered what a friend from back in Colombia had told me: it’s two goals, 22 people on the field, and three referees. Just go out there and have fun.”
To truly comprehend his journey, you must go back. Born in Colombia’s second city Medellín, Velásquez 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, Velásquez began an intense training regiment in preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I was good friends with a guy called Anthony Solomon. He owned an artificial pitch called Carolina Indoor Soccer,” he explains. “He 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 – it had a couch in the building. I’d do things like shooting, running with weights on my legs, at a good pace. All kinds of things.”
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, Velásquez 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, Velásquez was ready to move on. Having agreed to join Clemson University, he received a shock phone call: “They told me they had heard about my try-outs in Europe and that because of that I was ineligible – I had no idea.”
With the college route apparently blocked and his dream seemingly over, Velásquez had little idea what to do. His mother was now back home in Colombia, which at the time seemed the only option. “I visited Colombia three times [in the space of a year] to see if I could fit into the lifestyle and adjust to it.”
As Velásquez begins to elaborate, he reveals the culture shock. “In Colombia there’s not as much security as there is in this country,” he said. “There you can drink whatever age you want; you can do drugs on the corner of a soccer field.”
With his mother also living in one of the most dangerous areas, Pedregal, Velásquez provides a harrowing example of day-to-day life on a gangland frontline. “I remember when she’d call me crying and you could hear the shootings outside between the gangs. I didn’t want to go into that.
"When you’re young there, if people don’t know you they’re always going to ask ‘Who is that? Is he trying to take over our territory?’ I didn’t want to be a part of that. I want to be safe and not make bad decisions.”
It’s at this point you begin to understand why Velásquez is so grateful to Real Salt Lake. Already possessing a one-way ticket to Colombia, he made a vital final phone call. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.
"I was thinking about doing it, and I asked my college coach. He said I should, but I didn’t want to give him the news I wasn’t going to Clemson. Five minutes later, my professional life changed forever. If I hadn’t made that call there would have been no Sebastián in MLS.”
At this stage it was only a trial, and as Velásquez had already learned, that was no guarantee of being picked up. Huddled with his mother around a computer back in Colombia, Velásquez watched the Superdraft process unfold – all the time hoping and praying.
“When the first two drafts got picked, my mom got nervous. I just sat there and said ‘Don’t worry, things will work out, stay positive’. As soon as they picked me… man, I just started crying – that’s all I did, was cry.”
There’s a flicker in his voice as he recalls the moment that made this all possible. Selected at No.36, Sebastian Velásquez was now a professional soccer player. As he begins to settle into life in Utah, he hasn’t forgotten his mother. “We’re looking at that right now and her paperwork situation,” he said. “RSL is helping me with that. They’ve put me on to the immigration lawyers, so hopefully I can get her back here or help out economically.”
Proud of his Colombian roots at a club with a heavy South American influence, Velásquez has fit into the squad seamlessly, even gaining a nickname. ‘El Mofeta’ (‘The Skunk’) 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 Velásquez? “Someday I want to be an agent,” he declares. But he wouldn’t be a merciless money-mad merchandiser: his reasons are far more positive. “So I can go to these different spots where I know things are bad, give my hand to a kid and say ‘There’s green land on the other side of the hill; you do have an opportunity at life.” It’s a noble wish and one that you hope he is able to complete.
For the time being, however, his aim is simple – and he believes achievable under the stewardship of coach Jason Kreis. “I want to learn something new each day and become a better player. Jason Kreis is an incredible coach. He’s always there for you. I have so much respect for him that it feels like a father and son relationship.”