The unlikely journey of Ricardo Zacarias to Club America
MEXICO CITY — At a nearby coffee shop on a street across from Club America’s training grounds, Ricardo Zacarias recounted how he got to Mexico City. It is the story of how he went from studying to become a physical therapist in New Mexico and was just one year away from getting his associate’s degree before being signed by Mexico’s most decorated club.
Clad in a Notre Dame shirt, the 20-year-old forward from Albuquerque, New Mexico, took a deep breath and, in a mix of English and Spanish, began speaking about the most unlikely of journeys.
“No pues, well, it all started because of my dad. He was playing in this tournament back home, and that tournament was called Copa Alianza,” he said, referring to a tournament for Hispanic amateur teams in the U.S. “And in that same tournament there were scouts. And he told me, ‘You got to sign up for Sueno Alianza,’ three days before the tournament. I said, ‘All right!’ and that same day I signed up.
Sueno Alianza is an organization that provides young Hispanic players with the opportunity to earn trials or contracts at Liga MX clubs. Seven-hundred players attended Sueno Alianza’s contest in September 2015, and even though he was on the list of the final 20 players, Zacarias was not selected as one of the two winners. Nevertheless, he had made an impression and soon got another chance at the nationals held in Miami.
“I said yeah [to the second chance], and they paid for my flight, gave me cleats, shorts, uniforms, all kinds of stuff,” Zacarias said. “In Miami, I showcased my talents and was seen by many scouts. At the end of the showcase, I got invited to nine teams, and the team that was most interested in having me was Club America.”
Zacarias arrived in Mexico City in November 2015, and in order to arrive on time he asked his college professors to let him take his exams a month before the semester ended. Zacarias then started his trek in Mexican football with America’s U-20 side in the 2016 Clausura. America’s U-20 season came to a close after the team fell in the quarterfinals to Atlas on an aggregate score of 2-1.
Zacarias’ final numbers in U-20 competition were 13 starts and four goals, but he also had playing time with America’s Second Division club, America Premier. With that team, he had four starts and scored his first goal on Mexican soil, which came in spectacular fashion with a chilena. The chilena was his letter of introduction on a weekend in which he played 130 minutes: 45 minutes with the U-20s and almost 90 minutes with the Second Division side.
Since then, Zacarias has immersed himself in a new lifestyle, which is devoted 24/7 to football. Before attracting the attention of America scouts, Zacarias had junior college spells in Colorado and Arizona, but he never wanted to give up on his soccer dream, even if school was becoming his main priority.
“Even when I wasn’t playing soccer in college anymore, I’d still go to practice, not every day, maybe three times a week,” he said. “I would run every day, for sure. I always tried to stay in shape because I loved the sport. My dad loves soccer, so he always pushed me to be better.”
Zacarias’ dad is from the Mexican state of Michoacan, and his mom is from Chihuahua. Despite living more than 1,400 miles away, he stays in constant communication with parents, who have pledged their support to their son’s footballing dream.
“They know that I’m here to follow my dream, not to party,” Zaracias says with a serious tone.
His arrival to Liga MX from the United States is not common. For the most part, when Liga MX scouts head north to look for possible recruits, they closely look at players between the ages of 17 and 19. When Zacarias signed the contract handed to him by Las Aguilas‘ directors, he was 20.
“If I was 21, I wouldn’t probably be here, so everything worked out for me,” he said.
Had it not been for the insistence of America’s youth academy director, Mario Hernandez Lash, Zacarias might have selected another destination. Growing up in the United States, his favorite club was not America, but Santos Laguna.
“I liked Santos because I enjoyed watching Jared Borgetti,” he said. “I liked the way he played ever since I was little. I was a fan of his aerial game.”
Before landing in Mexico City to play for Los Azulcremas, he was aware of the responsibility that came with playing for a club like America, but he was more focused on making a name for himself in Mexican football: “I knew America was one of the most hated clubs and most loved clubs. They have the craziest fans, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll go over there.’ It doesn’t matter where I go or if I even like the team or not.”
In New Mexico, Zacarias played for Albuquerque Sol of the USL PDL. Playing for an MLS academy had always been a long shot because the nearest academies to his home in Las Cruces were FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids’ academies.
When asked about what his parents feel about him playing for one of the most successful clubs in Mexico, he responded with a smile.
“Actually, it’s kind of funny how it all got set up,” he said. “They went to the U.S. to get a better job, to have a better lifestyle, better everything, but over here there’s better soccer. In the U.S., they didn’t give me the opportunity to play, and over here they’re giving me the opportunity to showcase my talents.”
With the America U-20s, Zacarias plays for coach Israel Hernandez, who has helped Zacarias grow as a footballer.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had,” Zacarias said. “He understands the game very well. He lets me know when I’m doing well and when I’m doing bad. He likes to scream a lot, and he screams at you when you’re doing well or when you’re doing bad.
“One thing that he’s told me is that I got to learn how to use my body because in Mexico, defenders are colmilludos, sharp, alert. They hit you with the arms when the referee is not looking.”
America is living a mini-golden period, in which the club is always competing for titles in each of the competitions it is involved in. Zacarias said he sees that desire of always winning in all levels of the club, from the U-15s to the first-team.
“They want the best out of us,” he said. “They treat us so nicely, you don’t understand. If the next visit is six hours away, we fly. Not every Liga MX club does that.
“They set the goals high for us, and if the first-team is winning championships, they expect us to be winning championships. If we don’t, then there are consequences, like the Second Division team didn’t qualify to the playoffs, and they cut players. They will look for new replacements, so there’s always competition every day. Every practice there’s a chance to either better yourself or prove that someone else can take your spot.”
Zacarias’ career has started in quick fashion, and Zacarias hopes to take the next step in the 2016 Apertura and start getting first-team minutes with Las Aguilas, which will not be an easy task. If he starts knocking in goals each weekend, national teams will start taking note.
“My dad and I have discussed this topic. If the U.S. and Mexico were to send me an invitation right now, I would probably go with the U.S.,” he said, before pausing. “I just feel that I want to represent the country where I was born at, because it would make me feel prouder.”
If the last 12 months are any indication, Zacarias could be receiving that invitation soon.