Danny Cruz had never even watched a soccer game until his freshman year in high school. The 17-year-old was too busy becoming a star football and All-American roller hockey player in Arizona to concentrate on playing a game where he only used his feet. But after giving soccer a try, Cruz fell in love with the sport and three short years later was named to the 21-player U.S. roster for the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup in South Korea. Center Circle sat down with the 17-year-old to talk about his transition to soccer, making his presence felt on the national team and lets us know just who are tougher – football, hockey or soccer players.
When did you first start playing soccer?
Daniel Cruz: “My freshman year of high school I played football and hockey. Football of course is in the fall, and soccer in Arizona is in the winter. After my football season as a freshman, the soccer coach came to me and asked if I wanted to play soccer because he noticed my speed and vision. I wanted to find a way to stay fit for the next football season and for hockey, and I didn’t really know anything about it but I knew there was a lot of running involved. So, I played JV soccer my freshman year and progressed from there.”
How did you get into hockey in Arizona?
DC: “Well, I originally started in Northern California where I lived when I was younger. My neighbor just asked if I wanted to play one day when I was six years old and that was that. That’s all my life consisted of until my sophomore year of high school.”
Being a hockey player isn’t easy. Talk about your daily life.
DC: “There were times when I thought that I could play hockey for the rest of my life. I would get up at 4:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, practice from 5 to 6:30 a.m., and then head home and shower before school. That’s how discipline and hard work came into my life. After school I would go back to practice and play games on the weekends so it was obviously a huge commitment, but as a young kid it was something I loved and it didn’t seem like work to me.”
Switching gears, how did you get into football?
DC: “No matter what sport it is, anyone can see that I rely a lot of my speed. Once the football coaches got a hold of me I just fell in love with the sport. I loved hitting people, loved getting hit and loved scoring touchdowns. When I was a freshman in high school I started the season on junior varsity and after six games I was on varsity. Three games into my senior year I talked to my coach and told him that soccer was something I was going to have to focus on. I thought football was going to be my sport, but it turned out to be soccer.”
How have football and hockey helped your transition to soccer?
DC: “Playing football definitely helped my vision, no question. My body type, and the strength in my legs comes from hockey. I skated all day, every day, so as far as fitness and strength, I owe a lot of that to hockey.”
Was it a difficult decision to trade in two sports that you loved for soccer?
DC: “Yes, it was difficult, but when you fall in love with something it becomes your passion. With hockey, I felt like I had done everything I could up until that point. Maybe if I had kept playing I could have played professionally, but I just fell in love with soccer as soon as I started playing, even though I wasn’t very good at first, and I couldn’t wait to get better.”
Did you follow soccer at all before you started playing?
DC: “No. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I first started playing, and I went from being on the sideline while my coach was telling me the rules to just getting out there. I had a tough time with the offside rule at first. It’s the same concept (as hockey), but there is no line! So, I was offside all the time.”
What was your rise through the ranks like?
DC: “After my first high school season a club coach saw something in me and took me under his wing. I played for a small club, but my first coach there put together a really good team that made it pretty far in the state championship. That coach moved over to coach at Sereno, one of the two biggest clubs in Arizona, and he took me with him. Playing there was so important in my development. From there I made the Olympic Development Team, then the regional team and so forth. We went to Italy with the regional team and then to the Disney Cup (International Youth Soccer Tournament), where the national team was. It’s been a lot of hard work but so far it has been worth every minute.”
What was the process like for you when you were choosing a college?
DC: “The first time college coaches really got a good look at me wasn’t until December of my senior year when I went to the Disney Cup. I had already spoken with Portland and University of California – Irvine, but the head coach at UNLV, Mario Sanchez, was also my coach on the regional team. At this point in my career people are asking why I’m going to a school that had two wins last season. I’m the type of person who sees that as a challenge and something I’m excited for. It’s something that you just feel when you’re there. It just felt right for me.”
What do you expect out of your World Cup experience?
DC: “I watched the Under-20 World Cup while we were in training camp, and that was just phenomenal. Other than gaining knowledge and becoming a better player, I have no idea what to expect or what we’re getting into (laughing). I’m excited to be a part of it and hopefully this team will live up to its potential and we’ll go far. All I know is that it will be a great experience.”
What are some of your long-term goals in soccer?
DC: “I think like most of the guys here, I of course want to play for the full team. I’d like to see where my college career goes and someday to play professionally.”
Do you think your life would be different if you started playing soccer at age five or six like most of your teammates?
DC: “I think I would be a smarter player, and be more technical – there is always room for improvement. That said, if I had to go back and do it again, I would do it the same way. There is nothing like walking out onto the football field in front of 2,000 of your high school friends or winning a national championship in hockey. But I’m happy where I am in life and I’m around a group of great guys and great coaches. I know that I’ve been really lucky to be around so many great coaches in my life who believed in me and that’s how I got to where I am.”
Who are the tougher athletes – soccer, football or hockey players?
DC: “That’s a tough one. Football players wear a lot of pads and soccer players just wear shin guards (laughing), so I guess I’ll have to say soccer players.”