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  • Servando Carrasco

Sounders FC rookie Servando Carrasco is mature beyond his years

Servando Carrasco is proving he belongs in MLS in his rookie season with Sounders FC.

By Joshua Mayers

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rookie midfielder Servando Carrasco, 23, of Sounders FC has started for the past few weeks and is impressing the coaches.

Gloria Carrasco knew her son, Servando, would downplay his tough upbringing.

She knew he wouldn’t use his hometown of Tijuana, a poverty- and crime-stricken Mexican city just across the California border, as an excuse. She knew he wouldn’t complain about the long, sometimes exhausting, commutes every day into the United States and that he would choose to forget the difficult things he had seen and experienced.

So she explained it herself.

“Life has not been easy for him, so he needed to mature at a very young age,” said Gloria. “I think that’s why when he wants something, he fights hard for it.”

Homes and teams have changed over the years, but Servando Carrasco’s unrelenting drive has stayed.

The 23-year-old Sounders FC rookie has made an immediate impact, impressing coaches with talent, willpower and eagerness to learn. He’s quickly developed a reputation for his fearlessness and tenacity in midfield, and heading into Wednesday’s 7 p.m. home game against FC Dallas, he has started three weeks in a row.

“He’s got a lot of character and determination,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “If you know Servando’s history it’s pretty obvious why that is. He’s a guy that’s worked hard to accomplish the things that he has.”

And with the support of family it’s not hard to see where Carrasco finds his motivation. He owes a lot of it to mom, a two-time survivor of cancer.

“She’s the perfect example of what a warrior is,” Carrasco said. “She’s never complained, never pointed the finger or blamed God. She’s a true hero to me, and my inspiration. I think my work ethic and my attitude comes from her.”

Back and forth

Carrasco was born in Coronado, Calif., just outside San Diego. His family lived in Tijuana at the time, but Gloria, who had a green card, knew her son would receive a better education as an American citizen.

The commutes across the border, whether for school or soccer practice, became a daily task. The traffic was unbearable at times, but “it was worth it,” Gloria said.

When Carrasco was 7 years old his family moved to San Diego and his competitive nature on the soccer field was already clear.

“He’s always been that way,” said Valeriano Martinez, Carrasco’s grandfather. “He’s got a strong spirit.”

Then, before Carrasco went to high school, the family moved back to Tijuana.

Years later, Carrasco is used to being asked about living in a city with a dangerous reputation. He answers the same way every time.

“There are going to be good times and there are going to be bad times,” he said. “There are certain things I experienced that you wouldn’t experience growing up here, but you just have to overcome those hardships.”

Soccer provided an escape, but even that didn’t always come easy.

When Carrasco was 9, he was cut from a competitive team in the San Diego Soccer Club. The team was one year ahead of his age group but that was little consolation.

“He was hysterical,” said his grandfather.

“Even at that age I hated to lose,” Carrasco said. “I feel like that was the first time I really hit rock bottom at that age. I said, ‘This is never going to happen again.’ ”

He came back the next year and made the cut, sticking with the team for the next 10 years.

Balancing life and soccer

Carrasco was a late bloomer in high school.

“I was so small my freshman year: 5-foot-nothing, 110 pounds,” said Carrasco, who attended a private school called St. Augustine. Once his body filled out, Carrasco realized he had a future in the sport.

Awards and championships rolled in and college recruitment heated up. But Carrasco wasn’t sure if college soccer was for him, so he explored options.

During spring break of his senior year he went to Spain to train with Polideportivo Ejido of the second division. Then, after graduating, he had summer tryouts with popular Mexican clubs Chivas and Club America, but neither panned out. Finally, in the fall he went to train in Buenos Aires at the CEFAR soccer academy to prepare for a December tryout with Necaxa.

That’s when life intervened. Carrasco received a call that his mother had been diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. Without thinking twice, he packed his bags and went home.

“I just put aside my dreams for that time,” he said.

Gloria went through treatment – first a lumpectomy, then chemotherapy and radiation – and is healthy now. A few years later she also overcame a form of uterine cancer.

During her recovery, Carrasco found an avenue that fostered both his love for family and soccer. Playing collegiately at California for coach Kevin Grimes allowed him to stay close to home and also play with his longtime friend AJ Soares, who is now a defender for the New England Revolution.

Carrasco started 70 of his 73 college games and earned All-Pac-10 honors his last three seasons.

“He doesn’t expect anybody to give him everything,” said Grimes, unsurprised by Carrasco’s early success in MLS. “And he doesn’t run away from the ability to get better.”

Bold ambitions

It was Sounders FC’s second game of the 2011 season, and an injury to star midfielder Steve Zakuani left an opening for Carrasco in the lineup against the New York Red Bulls. The rave green color on his jersey was fitting for his level of experience.

Was he ready?

“Yeah, I was,” said Carrasco, looking back confidently. “It’s all about how you prepare for the match. All that night I knew what I wanted to do well and the mental side of it paid off.”

Seattle lost 1-0, but the knowledge gained was invaluable.

Carrasco’s commitment is seen by assistant coach Brian Schmetzer in film study.

“The kid really wants to play,” Schmetzer said. “He really wants to make it as a pro. That’s a great starting point.”

And the endpoint?

Carrasco knows he has a long way to go, but hopes to play at the national-team level. His allegiances lie with Mexico, but he wouldn’t close any doors to the U.S., either. Playing professionally in Europe is also an aspiration, and Carrasco might be able to receive European citizenship because his mother is Spanish.

Carrasco approaches his dreams much like his playing style, it seems. Never hold back.

“Being in this atmosphere and being on this team I feel like I have all the resources available to be the player I want to be,” he said. “I just have to dedicate the time and effort.

“Do I think the time will come? Absolutely.”

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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