Sebastian Velasquez’s first professional goal for Real Salt Lake, a perfectly executed header into the left corner of the net against L.A. Galaxy, lifted the playoff fortunes of the team. Real head coach Jason Kreis recognized the 22-year-old’s importance in a game that got “the monkey off our backs” of recent disappointing losses. “He just stepped forward and said, ‘I’m going to have an impact on this game in some way,’” Kreis said. “And he did, in a major, major way.”
Velasquez’s goal in the 35th minute against archrivals L.A. Galaxy in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals on Nov. 7 ultimately put an initially nervous Real on the road to victory against coach Bruce Arena’s team. Real defender Chris Shuler’s goal in the first minutes of extra time propelled the Claret & Cobalt into the finals.
The next game, Nov. 10, was the first leg of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Timbers—captained by former RSL midfielder Will Johnson. The night reflected the efforts general manager Garth Lagerwey and Kreis have made over the past two years to develop a broader base of forward talent.
“We were so relying on Sabo [forward Alvaro Saborio] and Javi [midfielder Javier Morales], if they didn’t score, we didn’t win.” Lagerwey says. Real’s first 4-2 win over Portland saw young, fast strikers such as Devon Sandoval and Joao Plata, as well as midfielder Velasquez—displaying his customary mullet and tails—all playing key roles.
But if Real owed Velasquez for helping propel them through the playoffs, so too does he owe much to the Sandy team. In a way, Real Salt Lake saved his life.
Velasquez was just 2 years old when his mother decided to leave a poverty-stricken barrio in Medellin, Colombia, and travel to the United States to find her son’s father. “She came here with nothing,” Velasquez says. His father was working as a cook in a breakfast house in South Carolina, but, Velasquez says, “things didn’t work between them.” Velasquez’s mother stayed in South Carolina, fashioning a life for herself and her son by sewing mattresses at a factory.
Velasquez demonstrated a natural talent for soccer at an early age. When he and his mother went back to Medellin when he was 10 to visit family, he found that it was a skill his uncle Armando possessed also. They played together on micro-soccer courts. Velasquez says that his uncle was so good at soccer, “a lot of people said he could have played for the national team.”
Shortly after they returned to the United States, Velasquez’s mother told him that his hero had been stabbed to death, his body crammed into a trashcan that had been tossed into a river. No one knew why.
His mother worked endless hours sewing to eventually afford a car and a house, but always managed to get to his games. If he was in a fight on the field, she’d run up and put her arms around him, “like a big bear going to protect her cub,” he says.
As a teen, Velasquez caught a coach’s eye and won a tryout that took him to trials for top European team Barcelona in Spain. But while he impressed Barcelona, he was unable to stay as long as the team wanted, so he returned to the United States. His mother, who’d used all her retirement funds to pay for the trip, went into a depression for 18 months.
Velasquez learned of his mother’s illness when he came home from school one day and found her passed out on the floor. Scared, he revived her and learned that she was seeing a therapist and was on medication.
“I made a man’s decision, I told her to go back to our family” in Colombia, he says.
Velasquez got his GED and had two “unbelievable seasons” at Spartanburg Methodist College, a junior college in South Carolina. He scored 22 goals the first year and 33 goals the second, earning him the attention of high-profile colleges. But then, the NCAA learned that he had been to tryouts in Europe, effectively ending his amateur status.
“I was trying to live a dream that seemed like it would never come true,” he says.
He decided to return for good to Colombia, but days before he left, a collegiate scouting contact tipped Real Salt Lake about the goal-prolific midfielder. Velasquez attended Real’s combine in Arizona just days before his flight to South America.
In Colombia, on Jan. 12, 2012, Velasquez monitored Real’s draft picks through the computer, having to refresh it each time a pick was made. His mother left the room, driven out by the tension. He received a message on Facebook from a friend in the States that said, “Hey, man, I love you, congratulations. You deserve it.” He refreshed the page and read his name out loud.
“We all started crying,” Velasquez says.
He was the first junior-college player to be selected on draft day, according to Real, in six years. That pick snatched Velasquez from stepping down a path in life, he says, from which he would not have returned.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says about where he was at that moment. “I was on the verge of going into a life where I was going to be out on the streets, doing things I shouldn’t. You just do whatever you have to do to survive.”
When he visits Colombia, he says, all his friends look older than he does. They’re hanging out on street corners, selling chicken with a sign, making $20 a week if they’re lucky. “In our country, there’s so much poverty, so much ambition,” he says.
After Velasquez arrived at Real, he thought head coach Kreis would spend years polishing his skills before featuring him in the first 11. Yet just a few months later, with his team plagued by injuries, Kreis picked the rookie to play midfield for Real against L.A. Galaxy at the Home Depot field in March 2012.
In the locker room before the game, Real’s midfielder Javier Morales hugged the visibly nervous youth. “This is your first game,” he told Velasquez. “Don’t put pressure on yourself. Just play simple, let the game come to you.”
In the second half, with neither side on the goal sheet, Velasquez shot from the far right corner, the ball deflecting off a defender into the goal.
Since that debut, Real president Bill Manning says, Velasquez has displayed “unbelievable glimpses of how good he can be.” But while he regularly beats people one-on-one and gets into the penalty box, Manning wanted to see Velasquez score, rather than defer to a veteran player like Alvaro Saborio and pass the ball to him. “I want a little more of the killer instinct in the box, that next level of confidence that ‘I’m going to finish it off,’” Manning says.
Against L.A. Galaxy in the Nov. 2013 semifinals, Velasquez found the level Manning hoped for, just when Real needed it most.
After he scored, Morales walked up to him, his arms outstretched, a huge smile on his face that seemed to say, “You made it.”
But for Velasquez, making it is only part of the fight. He recalls his best friend’s father telling him, “It’s easy to make it. What’s hard is to stay there and keep getting better.”