Keep Dreaming: Michael Orozco Living the American Olympic Dream
Like so many kids growing up, Michael Orozco looked up to his father and wanted to be just like him. But for Michael, he especially wanted to be like him on the soccer field.
His father, Jesus, played in the semi-professional leagues in and around Orange, Calif., where they lived and Michael was at every game since he was six years old, dreaming of the chance to be out there on the same field.
For most kids, playing in an actual, meaningful game alongside your dad stays a daydream. For Michael, a talented player gifted with speed, strength and height at an early age, it became a reality.
“When I turned 13, I played in a semi-pro Mexican league with my dad and we played right next to each other in the midfield,” said Orozco, who started at left back in the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team’s opening match against Japan on Thursday. “We’d always be touching it back and forth to each other. I even scored a goal. It was exciting. I played with him for a year and it was awesome.”
While Michael only played with his dad for that lone year (he jokes that his dad hung up his cleats after becoming more protector than midfielder), it’s definitely something that he hasn’t forgotten about almost a decade later as a professional player.
“I think that year is something that stays in my heart and pushes me,” said Orozco. “Every time I step on the field as a pro I think about how I had the chance to play with my dad and live that dream.”
That drive instilled in him at a young age helped Orozco make his way to Beijing, albeit through a different route than most of his teammates. While many of his teammates, such as Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, made their way through the national team youth system, playing in FIFA U-17 or U-20 World Cups, and eventually making their way to the full team, Orozco’s path started south of the border in Mexico.
At the age of 17, Orozco was noticed by a coach at Necaxa, a club in the Mexican First Division, and was invited for a tryout. He eventually joined the club, but never saw first team action during the first year and a half as he only played with the youth and reserve teams.
Then, the coach who had pushed the most for him at Necaxa moved on to another club, San Luis, and asked Orozco of he was interested in joining him. Intrigued by the chance for a new opportunity, he decided to give it a shot.
“I just flew out the following day, and I’ve been there ever since,” he said.
At San Luis, Orozco has flourished as a defender after being moved from his usual midfield position growing up in California. During the past three years, he’s seen his playing time increase and has helped San Luis start to move towards the top of the division. Although, he’s the first to admit things didn’t start off the best way during his debut in his first season with the club.
“I was on the bench and I didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” he recalled. “My coach called me over and told me I was going to play. We were up, 3-1, and there were 15 minutes to play. I went in and about three minutes in I took a bad touch and I slide-tackled. The ref gave me a red card. I just wanted to cry. It was my first game as a professional and I got a red card in three minutes. That was bad.”
With no place to go but up after a tough debut, Orozco has become a consistent defensive player and a versatile one as well, at some point playing all four positions across the back line.
While clubs in Mexico were obviously interested in Orozco, they weren’t the only ones as U.S. Soccer national staff coaches were also keeping an eye on him. In 2004 and 2005 he was called into camps with the Under-18 and Under-20 Men’s National Teams, an invite that he weighed carefully with his dad and mom, both of whom were born in Mexico.
“I talked to my dad when I first got the opportunity to come in with the U.S. national team, and we decided it would be a better decision for my future,” said Orozco. “I was born in the U.S., so I really wanted to play for the U.S. My parents agreed with me and it’s been good so far. I’m hoping there is more to come.”
Despite being a huge Mexican National Team and Chivas Guadalajara fan, Jesus has put his long allegiances aside.
“He’s supported me and is with me 110 percent,” said Orozco about his dad. “He doesn’t really worry about the Mexican National Team. He’ll support them of course at times, but he’s 100 percent – as am I – with the U.S.”
As his success has grown with the U.S. national teams, and in Mexico with his club, inevitably the Mexican National Team has also reached out, but for Orozco it’s not something he’s thinking about.
“They’re reached out and made contact but I really don’t pay attention to it,” said Orozco. “I’m here now and I play in a Mexican league. That’s the team I play for and everything is cool. I thought (playing for the U.S.) could give me a lot of exposure if I want to go play in Europe, and I want to succeed here.”
Looking back now, Orozco has definitely made the right decision, moving up the ladder from the U-20s to the Under-23s and eventually earning a starting spot with the Olympic Team.
“Just getting called in to an Olympic Team camp was really big thing for me,” said Orozco. “Then getting named to the qualifying team was really something good, and I was excited. That was a good chance for me to prove myself and show that I have some ability to help out the U.S., and it was good for my future.
Now, I’m here at the Olympics. I’m working hard day-by-day so I can make my debut with the senior team. It’s something that I never even dreamed of, to actually be on the national team and represent my country and hopefully I can be in the World Cup.”
Orozco knows he still has a lot of work in front of him for the chance to play in a World Cup, but for a kid who reached his first dream at the age of 13, who says he can’t reach his next.