When Raul Gonzalez woke up Wednesday morning, things were different — he was officially living his dream.
The former Ocean Springs soccer star, who is known as “Chino” to friends and family, signed his first professional contract Tuesday, locking in with the Richmond Kickers of the USL.
The signature was a long time coming. The former Greyhound, who later prepped at IMG Academy before starring at Memphis, had a long road to becoming a professional soccer player.
In the last three months, he was on trial with MLS expansion team Minnesota United FC, trained with the Kickers and then last week practiced with both MLS club Philadelphia Union and its USL affiliate, the Bethlehem Steel. In the end, he didn’t land a precious roster spot in Philadelphia but was still able to get back in with the Kickers.
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When his future was up in the air, Gonzalez was nervous. Signing with the Kickers, he said, was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and lifted a monumental weight off his shoulders.
“I feel more relaxed and stable,” he said Wednesday. “I’m somewhere now where I can grow my career. The potential to do well and train with (parent club) DC United and grow is exciting. Richmond is a good club. They get a lot of fans.”
Kicking it in Richmond
Gonzalez acknowledged Richmond’s management was disappointed they didn’t sign the former Greyhound the first time around.
“But in the end everything ended up working out,” he said, grateful for the opportunity. “... It was the right place and position at the right time.”
With Richmond, Gonzalez, who has mostly played as a winger and midfielder, will be at right wingback in its 3-4-3 formation.
“I’ll have a lot of freedom to go forward, but I’m defending as well. I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “I like to go forward with it and at the same time I like to help on defense.
“I try to be physical, anticipate the pass, intercept the pass and most importantly, make sure they don’t beat me.”
Learning in Philadelphia
Gonzalez didn’t ultimately make the Union, but the experience was positive.
“It was good getting back to speed and learning the pace and consistency of being a pro,” he said. “(Philadelphia) was great. A good experience. They’re very mature on the ball and well defined with their touch. No mistakes, especially from their players.
“They’re on a different level. There’s a lot of good players who were good to learn from.”
From his recent “tour” of professional soccer, he has also learned plenty about the business side of soccer.
“It’s a business, too,” he said. “You can get cut or waived at any time. You really have to go out there and perform with passion because there are jobs on the line now.”
Dream come true
From the time Gonzalez was little, playing on ball fields across South Mississippi, he dreamed of running onto the pitch as a professional in the top level of American soccer. He hasn’t quite reached the MLS, but he wanted to remain humble, appreciative of Tuesday’s accomplishment.
“It feels great. I’m living out my dream and moving forward with my passion for the sport. Knowing I can wake up and do what I love every day is a very exciting moment,” he said. “Obviously to me, this isn’t (work). I would love to play this game until my legs fall off.”
UPDATE: The Kickers officially announced Gonzalez’s signing Thursday.
“Raul is an exciting prospect with plenty of potential,” commented Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers Director of Soccer. “He gained valuable experience in preseason with Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United and he is a player we believe can develop considerably in the coming months.”
Gonzalez could make his USL debut on Saturday when the Kickers visit New York Red Bulls II.