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From the Pitch – "On the Brink"

By DIEGO RESTREPO, San Antonio FC, 03/29/18, 12:05AM EDT

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How one phone call helped bring the well-traveled keeper from the brink of retirement to the spotlight

Hello USL fans, this is Diego Restrepo, Goalkeeper for San Antonio FC. I’m excited to have been selected as a contributor for “From The Pitch” this season, and I’m looking forward to be able to give you an inside look at our upcoming season.

For this first entry, I wanted to do a quick recap of my journey so far playing the beautiful game.

I am the son of two naturalized American citizens, my parents Gus and Lee. I was born in Merida, Venezuela while my parents were there in between jobs visiting family. Shortly after being born, my folks moved back to their home country of Colombia with me and my brother, and I spent my childhood in Cali, Colombia.

As a result, I am a citizen of Venezuela, Colombia, and the United States, and these three countries have also shaped my soccer path, as I’ve been fortunate enough to play professionally in all three.

Colombia is a soccer-mad country, and growing up in that environment made me love the game from when I was a baby.  My family tells stories of me crawling with a soccer ball before I could walk, kicking the ball against the wall in our yard when I was a toddler, and playing pick-up games in school during recess. I was a field player growing up, and I think I still have a bit of that Colombian flair as a keeper. I grew up watching goalkeepers like Colombian legends Rene Higuita, Oscar Cordoba, and current Venezuelan National Team Coach Rafael Dudamel (who played in Cali at the time), and having that influence and style of play to emulate, plus my field experience, is why I have always been comfortable on the ball, and like to occasionally juke or dribble by an attacking player.

Fast forward to a month before my 11th birthday, when me and my family moved to the U.S. While it was a culture shock, as I was going to school while also learning a second language, it was the best thing that could’ve happened for my soccer career.

I was able to play in organized leagues in West Palm Beach, joined a travel team, moved from a field player to a goalkeeper, and after a successful youth career was spotted by National Team scouts in the run-up to the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru.

At age 15, I moved into the U.S. Soccer Federation residency program in Bradenton, Fla. While it was tough leaving home at such a young age, the move is when I knew I could have a future as a professional player. I got to live and train with the best of the best in the U.S., was roommates with guys like Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, Eric Lichaj to name a few, and got to travel the world with the National Team. I got to represent the U.S. in the U-17 World Cup, and it was a once in a lifetime experience.

"Fast forward to a month before my 11th birthday, when me and my family moved to the U.S. While it was a culture shock, as I was going to school while also learning a second language, it was the best thing that could’ve happened for my soccer career."

At the college level, I played three years at the University of South Florida, and then transferred to the University of Virginia as a redshirt junior. My first year at UVa. was a dream season. Our team went on a roll, we held 11 straight clean sheets during the latter part of the season, winning the ACC championship. At the College Cup, we handed previously unbeaten Akron its first loss of the season in penalties, and won the National Championship. After college, I had the option of going through the MLS system and wait to see if I would be drafted or have to go the unsigned player route. A couple of weeks before the draft, when I found out I was not invited to the MLS combine, I started looking at a Plan B just in case.

Through a family friend, I was invited to a trial with Colombian powerhouse America De Cali, who was going through a period of flux and was looking at younger players.

Instead of waiting on the phone for an MLS call, I decided to pack my bags and go back to my childhood home of Cali and give the trial a shot. After a couple of weeks, the coaching staff decided to offer me a contract, and I now was the backup goalkeeper for one of the most storied teams in South America. My professional debut was at an international friendly tournament in Peru, against national giants Universitario in front of 40,000 people. It was a long way away from college soccer.

That year in Colombia was a crash course on professional soccer. We lived in the public eye every moment. Every game the team played was dissected by fans, we were the main talking point in every newscast, every radio show. All of our trainings were packed with media, and after every game you were the best player in the world (after a win) or the worst one and needed to be cut (after a loss). I was able to play in both the cup and the league, and will always remember those experiences. After being named the starter for the fall season, the coaching staff was fired after two games and I was not in the plans of the new manager. My time at America De Cali would end at the end of the season.


Restrepo with Colombian powerhouse America de Cali

The following year, after a couple of my games at America had caught the eye of a Colombian manager who had just moved to Venezuela, I was signed to Deportivo Tachira, the most historic club in Venezuela. I got to play even more games my second year as a professional, and had some great performances. But the world of professional soccer in South America is a volatile one, especially with big clubs. The coaching staff at Tachira was let go, the new staff that came in wanted to bring a whole new squad, and I was released at the end of the season.

Armed with two years of first division experience with two huge South American clubs, I decided it was time to come back to the U.S. I signed with Tampa Bay Rowdies and won the starting job, playing 26 matches in all competitions in 2013. I had a great season, was established as the starting keeper, signed a new contract, and my career looked to be in great shape. Then on February 25th, 2014 (on my birthday!) I tore my Achilles in pre-season practice. My 2014 season was over before it ever really started, and now my career looked to be in serious jeopardy.

After an agonizing off-season in 2015, with no team giving me a call back and out of options, it looked like I would have to hang the gloves up. Every time I thought about retiring, the thought of not being able to play anymore was devastating, as I love the game too much and knew I had a lot left in the tank.


Restrepo suiting up for Deportivo Tachira (Venezuela)

Late in pre-season, newly formed Charlotte Independence offered me a contract, and I had a new lifeline. I moved to Charlotte and was fighting for the starting spot, when I got a call from Venezuela. Metropolitanos FC, a club based in the capital of Caracas, wanted a young keeper to push their established starter Javier Toyo, a national team veteran. I was transferred to Metropolitanos, with the opportunity to play at the first division level in South America again, and I was able to beat out Toyo and earned the #1 shirt for the club.

At the end of the season, I was offered to stay at Metro and I had a decision to make. While I loved the club, and loved playing in first division, the political situation in Venezuela was very unstable and potentially dangerous. I decided to leave Venezuela, and was again a free agent in the United States.

It would be my third country and fifth team in five years, and I would be lying if the constant flux, and not having a “home” since I moved out of my parents’ house at age 15 was not starting to take its toll.

The life of a professional soccer player is one of constant change. New teammates, new coaches, new cities, new teams, you’re always in a new environment. And every time you’re in a new environment, you have to constantly prove yourself through your work on the field and demeanor off it. Being a professional, especially as a goalkeeper, is a constant search for consistency in an inconsistent environment.

"It would be my third country and fifth team in five years, and I would be lying if the constant flux, and not having a “home” since I moved out of my parents’ house at age 15 was not starting to take its toll."

The Fort Lauderdale Strikers offered me a spot in their team, which was a blessing both on and off the pitch. On the field, I was able to keep playing professionally back in the States, and off the field I was back in South Florida, which is home in a way. My family would get to come to my games and I would get to spend time with them every day after training.

Being back home and near my support system helped me on the field tremendously. Midway through the spring season, I won the starting job and felt in great form. We went on a great run to finish the spring, and did great in the U.S. Open Cup, knocking off D.C. United and Orlando City on our way to the quarters.

Towards the end of the season, I was transferred back to the Rowdies where I served as the backup to finish the year. While that meant leaving South Florida, I felt refreshed and ready to get back on the road.

Once again it was the offseason, and while I had a good year with the Strikers, I had no team and very little interest from clubs.

Preseason had started, and I was home with no team. I had an offer to start my coaching career as goalkeeper coach at a Division I school, and was close to taking it and retiring from playing.

Still, I wasn’t ready to call it a career. I had a conversation with my family, who have been my backbone and support system throughout my soccer journey, and they told me that if I was not ready to stop playing, to keep training and stay ready, and that they would support me throughout this period. They encouraged me to stay positive, that even if an offer didn’t come during the offseason, that there were always injuries and the summer transfer window. I knew deep down that I wanted to keep playing and that I still had much to give on the field.

Finally, towards the end of preseason, I got a call from San Antonio FC. I was offered a trial, for the third keeper spot. It was a tough pill to swallow as an eight-year professional with over 80 starts and three years of top flight experience in South America, but it was my only shot of being able to play, so I took the opportunity and went down to San Antonio with one goal: train as hard as I could every day and let the chips fall where they way.

In soccer, you never know what will happen from one game to the next, and as a player, the only thing in my control is how hard you train and how prepared you are. And as a goalkeeper, you have very limited opportunities in your career to establish yourself, so you have to be ready when your number is called.

I earned a contract, and five games into the season I was in goal. With the help of the coaching staff and our great squad, I had my best year as a professional, and was named All-league First Team and Goalkeeper of the Year. To make it even better, I was able to do it in the great city of San Antonio, in front of the best fans in the USL.

Now we are two weeks into a new season. I am thankful for San Antonio FC and their belief in me, and for bringing me back as one of the club veterans, ready to fight for championships.

During this offseason, I was able to focus solely on preparing for the 2018 season instead of the roller coaster that is the transfer market. And for the first time in my career, both on and off the pitch, I have found a home in the city of San Antonio.

I am excited for 2018 season, and the possibilities that lie ahead. I am looking forward to share this season’s journey with all of you.

Diego

"In soccer, you never know what will happen from one game to the next, and as a player, the only thing in my control is how hard you train and how prepared you are. And as a goalkeeper, you have very limited opportunities in your career to establish yourself, so you have to be ready when your number is called."

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