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For RSL striker, soccer a means to escape past

Published November 5, 2008 1:28 am

After fleeing war-torn Azerbaijan, Movsisyan pays back family best way he can
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SANDY - Yura Movsisyan doesn't remember much about his troubled childhood in a faraway land, except the sound of shots being fired and rockets being launched, and the things he loved but couldn't enjoy, such as playing soccer.

"Imagine right now, Afghanistan or Iraq," he said. "Same thing. You were one bullet away from not being alive. That's pretty much what it was."

That's why his stunning emergence for Real Salt Lake - the striker has scored seven goals in nine games since unexpectedly entering the lineup, including back-to-back 90th-minute miracles to boost his team in to the Major League Soccer playoffs for the first time - means so much to him. It's proof that Movsisyan is repaying his family the best way he knows how, for all of the painful sacrifices it has had to endure.

"We came over to have a better life," he said. "And this is a dream come true for me, for my parents to see me not just play, but be successful and make a name for myself."

That is something for which Movsisyan prayed desperately, when he was a young boy living with his parents and two brothers in war-torn Azerbaijan.

Ethnically Armenian, Movsisyan hates to even speak the name of the nation in southwestern Asia with which his people have fought over the years. "Put that I'm Armenian," he said. "That's what I want people to know. That's all I am." Yet the misfortune of living in enemy territory during and after a savage war obviously is what shaped his childhood.

Movsisyan was born in 1987, the year before ethnic and territorial tensions in the neighboring former Soviet republics turned violent.

The conflict escalated into war when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and many of its weapons found their way into the hands of the combatants. By the time a cease-fire was negotiated in 1994, some 30,000 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

"It was just awful," he said. "It was something that you'd never, ever want to remember. It was just a disaster, for my family. It was day to day. Live to live, basically. It was difficult time, and my parents basically risked their lives every day to give us a better life."

His father, Sergey, struggled to find work amid the ethnic tensions and discrimination, and Movsisyan recalled not being allowed to play organized soccer because of his heritage. He learned to love the game mostly by watching teams such as Arsenal and Real Madrid on television, and played almost exclusively in his bedroom with his older brother, Movses, who later took a job that freed Movsisyan to play soccer.

"It was difficult enough for me not to be able to play soccer or not to be able to go out on the street and be a free kid like anybody would enjoy," he said. "A lot of kids here take everything for granted. But back where I come from, where we lived, you don't have all those freedoms. You don't get to choose who you take to prom. You don't have all that stuff."

Even after the cease-fire, though, trouble remained.

So when Movsisyan was 12 years old, he said, his family fled Azerbaijan and emigrated to the United States. They landed in an Armenian enclave in Pasadena, Calif., where Movsisyan played organized soccer for the first time and soon became a star.

"You could definitely tell that the potential was there and the ability was there," RSL's Tony Beltran said.

Beltran was playing for the area's powerful Arsenal FC club team when Movsisyan arrived, and his father later helped arrange for Movsisyan - clearly in need of a challenge to develop his talent - to join the team after the boys played against one another. The boys fast became good friends, with Movsisyan occasionally staying with Beltran before and after games and workouts.

"He fit in very well with my family and my friends," Beltran recalled. "Everyone knew him and everyone loved him and everyone knew he was a great player."

Quickly proved it, too.

After a standout career at Pasadena High School, Movsisyan enrolled at Pasadena City College, where he scored 18 goals in 19 games of his only season before entering the 2006 MLS Draft. The Kansas City Wizards made him the fourth pick, though a stockpile of strikers limited his opportunities until RSL traded for him midway through last season -shortly before he was officially granted political asylum, clearing the way for his pursuit of a green card and, ultimately, American citizenship.

Even this year, though, Movsisyan was hardly an all-star from the start.

He had made only a handful of starts and battled a knee injury before fellow striker Fabian Espindola sprained his ankle two months ago, doing a back-flip to celebrate a goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy that was ultimately disallowed. Movsisyan replaced him, scored almost immediately, and has never looked back.

"I just feel like I knew it would happen one day," he said. "I knew one day it would start, but I'm glad that I peaked at the right time - to help us go to the playoffs and help us in the playoffs."

Now, he will enjoy having his parents and brothers in the crowd when RSL plays Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center on Saturday, in the second game of its playoff series with the Goats. And he will try to keep his hot streak going, not only to help his team win, but to continue to honor the gift his family has given him.

"I don't think a lot of people would have put their money on me to make it pro in this league and to be successful," he said.

mcl@sltrib.com

RSL at Chivas USA

PLAYOFFS - Leg 2

Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel

Yura Movsisyan file

Position: Striker

Age: 21

Height: 6-0

Weight: 180

College: Pasadena City College

Coach Jason Kreis says: "The staff has been upbeat and confident that he was going to turn into something special. I don't think he's a finished product, and I think it's important for everybody to understand that. He's been very, very good, but he can be even better."