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Homegrown Talent Spurs San Antonio
(San Antonio FC edged out the Colorado Springs Switchbacks in a shootout in the previous round)
Cardone is part of an emerging generation of local players, including teammates Maxi Rodriguez and 16-year-old Ethan Bryant, San Antonio FC’s youngest player. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t quite as big as it now,” said Cardone, a hero of San Antonio FC’s shootout win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks in the last round of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. “Now, there are excellent academy programs, a lot more clubs in town, more guys are going on to play in college.
“Most of the players I played with, the guys we looked up to were guys we saw on TV, guys in the [English] Premier League,” said Cardone, who can’t be missed on the pitch for his wild, wooly beard. “Now, these days, it’s really cool – young players can come down to the stadium and see good players play, and actually talk to them.”
“It’s been a dream for me, I always wanted play at the professional level,” said Bryant, who’s barely old enough to drive and, with his delicate features and slight build, looks younger than his tender 16 years. “And in my hometown, and with coaches I’ve known since I was 12 years old, it’s a great opportunity. There will be more homegrown players coming through. When I was a kid, I watched central midfielders like [Andres] Iniesta. My nickname at training – Luka Modric – he’s a player I look up to, mostly because of the hair and we play the same position. He’s a role model of mine. I remember watching Rafa Castillo play, too, he was a role model to me, the way he played, the way he carried himself, a real professional. And, now he’s my teammate.”
(Ethan Bryant - on the right - was home-schooled and signed a pro contract at 16 years old)
Rodriguez left home to play for UNC-Charlotte, believing there were few NCAA Division 1 programs in Texas. “I kind of understood that, when I was younger, Dallas and Houston got more looks and had more prospects,” said Rodriguez, a powerful and rangy midfielder. “I wanted to come out of San Antonio and be someone people would know about. Now, we have the San Antonio FC Academy, a couple players are being called up to U.S. Youth National Team camps. It’s awesome to see that, see how it’s grown. Not enough people get recognition or get the opportunity here.”
Mexican Influence for Maxi
Rodriguez grew up in a family that supported Mexican side CF Monterrey and was influenced by Liga MX stars as well as U.S. players. “I remember how competitive it was at the academy, playing against guys like [U.S. National Team player and Plano, Texas native] Kellyn Acosta week in and week out,” Rodriguez recalled. “Clint Dempsey – I always looked up to him, a Texas hero. He had a little bit of an edge.
Club team games and practices were not enough for young Bryant, who set up a mini soccer field in his backyard, first by dragging garbage cans together to make goals. “I was out there all time, had friends over to play,” Bryant said. “It’s what made me what I am, that field. I fell in love with the game early and I’ve been playing ever since.”
(Maxi Rodriguez is a hard-working midfielder who spent time in the FC Dallas academy)
Bryant, listed at 5-foot-9, 132 pounds, earned a penalty kick in his debut as San Antonio FC eliminated the Switchbacks in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup. Castillo converted the penalty, then SAFC advanced on a shootout after playing to a 1-1 draw through 120 minutes. “Ethan [Bryant] started training with us a year and a half ago,” said Rodriguez, himself just 22 but a full six years Bryant’s senior. “You could see he had something. It took two weeks for him to get used to it, to understand the game. He’s smart and has the physical attributes to be a great player. You see him grow, it’s exciting to see.”
Now, San Antonio FC is preparing to play host to two-time champs FC Dallas in a Fourth Round match. “We want to go as far as we can in the Open Cup and we’re not going to come out scared because it’s an MLS club,” Bryant said. “We’re coming out full throttle, and try to win all these games. We’re going for the league too. We have the players and coaching staff to do it.”
Open Cup Experience Crucial
This is also a chance for San Antonio’s players to prove they’ve shaken perceptions of inferiority. “We give it our best go,” said Cardone, a team leader between the pipes and a fan favorite – ‘Fear the Beard’ chants are common at home games. “We’ve played teams from different leagues, MLS. We just go out there and give it our best shot and, hopefully, get to the next round. I think it’s very realistic. We believe in ourselves. We want to win every competition we’re in, from the first preseason game of the year.”
(San Antonio FC face a tough test in the Fourth Round against twice Open Cup champs FC Dallas)
With a trio of three hometown boys leading the way, carrying the torch for a city often overlooked and underestimated, San Antonio FC might have the right kind of wind behind them to spark some serious Open Cup fire.