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Rookie trying to stay focused amid dream start for RSL

Published March 15, 2012 11:48 pm

MLS • Velasquez's style meshes perfectly with how RSL plays.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • It has been quite a week for Sebastian Velasquez.

The 21-year-old Real Salt Lake rookie started his first professional game against the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy. Took the shot that turned into the rally-igniting equalizer. Swapped jerseys with Landon Donovan — his mother's favorite player — and drew favorable comparisons to the legendary David Beckham in at least one British newspaper.

"It's been amazing being on the field," he said.

And somehow, Velasquez has not allowed all of the sudden attention to distract him.

The young and diminutive Colombian has remained as wide-eyed and cheerful as he was when he arrived at RSL training camp fresh out of junior college, hoping simply to hold his own against the players whose avatars he challenged in video games.

But he also has shown the focus of a veteran, and impressed his teammates with his skill in place of injured midfielder Will Johnson.

"He plays simple, he's good on the ball, he's comfortable on the ball," fellow midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "So he comes in, and he's going to feel pretty confident right away playing on this team."

Velasquez figures to have earned another start when RSL opens its home season against the New York Red Bulls at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night, but the dream run could end soon.

Johnson is recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia, and coach Jason Kreis said his return is just a matter of time — though Kreis said Velasquez has performed well enough that Johnson doesn't have to rush back.

Presumably, that would bump Velasquez back down to the reserve bench, albeit with a tremendous dose of confidence and experience. He said he knows that with so many games this season, "everybody is going to get minutes," one way or another.

"It's obviously nice to have everybody admire what happened this past weekend," Velasquez said. "But at the same time, if you have a bad game, the same thing can happen. … So I'd rather not even go into that side of things, just keep working hard and keep focusing on what coach is telling us, focus on that the team is the star, and not change any of that."

One thing that has changed is the haircut.

When Velasquez arrived for preseason camp, he had a bushy head of black hair with blonde streaks dyed through it. But the veterans took care of that, with defender Jamison Olave making sure the rook's head got shaved — though he allowed the signature "rat-tail" in back to remain.

"At least they let me keep the rat-tail," Velasquez said with a smile.

Grabavoy said his skills on the ball make Velasquez "a perfect player in MLS" and "almost a perfect example of a kid who could have gone to another club and probably never been heard from. It's not because he's not a good player. It's because another club plays a different style."

With RSL, it's all passing, possession and movement, and Velasquez has proved up to the challenge.

Even the British press took notice.

While it said it's "way premature" to write off Beckham, the Guardian newspaper in a blog post praised Velasquez and said he symbolized "the first hint of a changing of the guard — and of the day when those born with this league, are the ones who principally contest it."

mcl@sltrib.com

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