New England Soccer Today

An unusual journey

When Fernando Cabadas first showed up at Sacramento State University for open tryouts four years ago, no one expected him to make the team. To head coach Michael Linenberger, a guy who is willing to give anyone a shot, Cabadas appeared to be just another of the countless kids who tryout every year unrealistically thinking they’re good enough to play Division I college soccer.

The New England Revolution picked up Sacramento State's Fernando Cabadas in the second round of the MLS Supplemental Draft (24th overall). (Photo courtesy Bob Solorio/Sacramento State Athletics)

“First look, he’s in a wife-beater t-shirt and basketball shorts and we’re like ‘ok, here’s another one’”, said Linenberger.

That all changed when Cabadas stepped onto the field. The slender kid, known as “Fernie” to his coaches and teammates, was quick to change everyone’s perceptions.

“After 15 minutes, we were like ‘this kid can play’”, said Linenberger. “Right away, we knew he was something special.”

That day would not only mark the start of an amazing college career for Cabadas, but a fantastic run of success for the school as well. During Cabadas’ time at Sacramento, he helped lead the Hornets to back-to-back Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament titles and caught the attention of one particular MLS club – the New England Revolution – who selected him in this year’s Supplemental Draft.

While going from college walk-on to professional soccer might not be that of a blue chip prospect, for the 22-year-old Cabadas, it’s just a part of his very unique journey.

Cabadas credits his father, who has been playing soccer his entire life, for getting him started at age five. That in itself isn’t unusual. But it’s the late start to Cabadas’ entry into competitive soccer that’s intriguing. Cabadas spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles, but didn’t join a competitive team until his family moved to Sacramento.

“Once I moved up here, some guy saw me play and invited me to his team,” said Cabadas. “Ever since then, I’ve been playing competitively.”

In Sacramento, Cabadas joined River City United Soccer Club, even playing a year above his age group when he first started. That age group eventually disbanded and Cabadas moved back to playing with kids his own age.

Cabadas didn't play organized soccer until his family moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento. (Photo courtesy Bob Solorio/Sacramento State Athletics)

When Cabadas entered Hiram Johnson High School, he was hesitant to join the soccer team and didn’t tryout until his sophomore year. Once he made the team, Cabadas broke several scoring records, took home MVP awards, and helped turn the team around in his final year there.

“Our soccer team wasn’t that great,” said Cabadas. “My first year there, I didn’t even play for the team because I just knew they were really bad. My sophomore year, we struggled. It wasn’t until my senior year when we had a decent squad to make the playoffs.”

After that, his journey to Sacramento State began.

“I live like 15 minutes away and I was going to come here to get my degree in engineering,” said Cabadas. “I figured I might as well just try out for the team.”

But before he did, he sought the advice of a friend who was already on the squad.

“I had a friend from [River City] that played here, Zach [Tuss],” said Cabadas. “He told the background of Sacramento State and helped me through the process of joining the team.”

That process began with an e-mail to Coach Linenberger over the summer, which led to the subsequent tryout.

“I was nervous [heading into the tryout],” said Cabadas. “But when it comes down to playing soccer, when you’re on the field, you forget all those things and just play the game.”

Only a couple games into his freshman season, the walk-on who arrived in basketball shorts and a tank top had earned a starting spot.

But while Cabada was impressing as a freshman, things weren’t going particularly well for the Hornets. The school had lost their first six games of the season and looked to be headed to their seventh straight defeat on September 16, 2007, down 2-0 at University of California Riverside.

Fellow freshman Cody Shields pulled Sacramento State within one with a goal in the 54th minute, but when the Hornet’s goalkeeper was ejected in the 77th minute, leaving the team a man down, any hope of a comeback seemed lost.

With the final seconds winding down, Sacramento had earned themselves one final chance from a deep throw-in. Enter Cabadas.

“We had a guy take a long throw-in,” said Linenberger. “It came to Fernando, who did a bicycle kick. It went into the upper 90 and tied the game for us with literally like two seconds left in the game.”

And just like that, a comeback was clinched and a star was born.

“It’s too bad we don’t have it on film,” said Cabadas. “It was just there, proper height, so I just bicycle kicked that bad boy.”

For the flashy freshman, the bicycle kick was simply a talent he had been honing for years.

“I used to go by myself to the park with some high school friends,” said Cabadas. “I would always have my friend cross the ball to me and I would practice my bicycle kick. I guess it paid off for that moment.”

And with that one amazing goal, Cabadas brought an end to the longest losing streak the team would experience in his four years at the school. Cabadas would go on to finish his freshman year with two goals and four assists, earning himself a scholarship in the process.

The 6-1 Cabadas made the switch from an outside midfielder to an attacking central midfielder role as a sophomore, a position similar to that of his favorite player, Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez.

“He’s the best player in the world for me,” said Cabadas. “He rarely commits any mistakes. His style of play is simple, yet not too many players can play like that. Players want to make the perfect pass, make that killer pass that will turn a game around, but he just keeps it simple, lets the game come to him, and eventually he makes those dangerous passes. I want to emulate his style of play.”

Cabadas led Sacramento State to the MPSF Title in both his junior and senior years. (Photo courtesy Bob Solorio/Sacramento State Athletics)

Not surprisingly, when asked what he thought Linenberger saw in him, Cabadas cites similar qualities.

“What I know is from watching the pros play and from experience,” he said. “I guess he saw that I was a bit different. I try to pass the ball more than directly attack. I try to build up; I guess I added that to the team. Patience. I’m not the most physical player, but I try to be smart with the ball.”

Cabadas immediately took to the new role, but while he earned First Team All-MPSF honors and the team improved over the prior year, it was during his junior year that he really showed what a dominant, influential player he could be from the center.

“Fernando and Ernesto Carranza, who also got drafted this year by Chivas USA, ended up coming in as freshmen together,” said Linenberger. “They were both quite good as freshmen and sophomores, but the last two years as juniors and seniors, those two guys have really made the difference in our team.”

In 2009, the team set a new program record for wins in the D-I era, with a 12-6-3 record. The Hornets won the regular season MPSF Title, as well as their first-ever MPSF Tournament Title. Meanwhile, Cabadas’ efforts earned him tournament MVP honors.

“He was very good during that conference tournament,” said Linenberger. “It was in Denver, in the snow, and we were a little bit concerned about that, going into cold snowy weather being from California with a lot of Latin-oriented players. It did not affect Fernando at all. He had a tremendous tournament: a game winning assist in the semifinal in overtime against UNLV, and really controlled the tempo of the game in the final against New Mexico.”

The Hornets would go one step further, advancing past Loyola Maryland in the NCAA Tournament before falling 2-1 to sixth-seed UCLA in the second round. It was a remarkable season for all involved, especially Cabadas, who set a school record with nine assists while adding a goal, good enough to earn him another First Team All-MPSF selection.

The 2010 season proved that the previous year was no fluke. With an 11-5-7 record, the Hornets won their second-consecutive MPSF Tournament Title and earned another trip to the NCAA Tournament. In the first round, Sacramento beat Santa Clara before falling once again to UCLA in the second round. When it was all said and done, Cabadas earned his third straight First Team All-MPSF selection and finished with a career-best four goals along with five assists.

With Sacramento’s success earning some well-deserved national attention, it came as no surprise that Cabadas began attracting the interest of some professional coaches. However, when Carranza was invited to the MLS Combine and Cabadas was left home, the walk-on wonder began to doubt his chances of getting drafted.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to get drafted,” said Cabadas. “I was looking forward to my friend Ernie [Carranza] getting drafted. . . . He was the first one to tell me ‘Hey, congrats you are going to New England’ and I had to go online to check it out and it was true. I was just full of joy.”

Linenberger was equally happy to see one of his stars get a chance to go pro.

“I was very excited for him,” said Linenberger. “I was hoping maybe he would get drafted. I had taken some polls from some coaches around the league about him. I knew his name was out and about a little bit, but when he wasn’t invited to the Combine, I wasn’t sure if he would actually get a look or not. When he got drafted I was very, very happy for him because I think he deserves a chance.”

For Cabadas, the improbable journey isn’t over just yet. Once he joins the Revolution for preseason on January 31st, he’ll have to earn a contract. It’s a difficult task, but one he’s ready to take on.

“I know it’s going to be really tough,” said Cabadas. “It takes a lot to be a professional athlete. I know the mental aspect of it that every day you are going to be demanded to a level that you’ve never even realized before, especially at the college level it’s nothing compared to that.

“You are playing with top athletes who have the best technique, the best knowledge of the game, and fitness,” he continued. “All these things come into play. Me, as a prospect, I guess you can say, I need to try to outperform all these players and it’s just an honor to have this opportunity and I’m for sure going to try to prove myself that I can provide something else to this team, something better.”

Linenberger, a former professional himself with in the U.S. with the Sacramento Senators and in Germany’s second and third divisions with FC St. Pauli and SC Norderstedt, had his own advice for Cabadas.

“Fernando needs to go in with confidence because he’s a very good player,” said Linenberger. “At times, I think he doesn’t realize how good he is and what an impact on the game he can have. I think that’s the biggest thing for him is mentally to go in with a lot of confidence, and to believe in himself, and to know that he can have an impact on the game.”

After scoring a bicycle kick goal with the game on the line only weeks after he walked on at Sacramento, it’s hard to image confidence will be much of an issue as Cabadas looks to make another improbable leap to the professional level.


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