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Second-Year Pro: Ryan-Sanders Shootout Valuable Opportunity05/04/2010 4:15 PM ET
By Kristen Gambetta / Houston Dynamo
Lance Berkman had a plastic bat in his hand by the time he was two years old.
That's how the story begins for a majority of professional athletes, and that is what makes Danny Cruz so remarkable.
Cruz did not begin playing soccer until his freshman year of high school, when most players have been entrenched in competitive play for years. His athleticism and speed helped him quickly adapt to the game, but he was still catching up on the technical aspects. He spent extra hours on the field for training sessions in high school, and they paid dividends.
Only four years after starting to play soccer, he made the United States national team roster for the Under-17 World Cup in South Korea. Already on track to play football in college, Cruz had to decide during his senior year in high school which sport to pursue.
"I had to make a tough decision as to if I wanted to be a soccer player or be a football player," Cruz said. "I decided to make the switch to soccer and put my entire life into it."
After three semesters and two soccer seasons at UNLV, Cruz was selected as a Generation Adidas player to join Major League Soccer. Generation Adidas identifies up-and-coming young Americans and guarantees them a Major League Soccer contract.
Cruz was drafted by the Dynamo at only 19 years old, a mere six years after starting to play soccer. In his first season for the Dynamo in 2009, he appeared in six MLS matches and earned most of his minutes for the Dynamo in international competitions and exhibition games. The majority of the 2009 season was spent with the Under-20 World Cup team in Egypt under veteran coach Thomas Rongen. Both World Cup experiences helped to shape him as a player.
"Whatever age you are, whether it is Under-17, Under-20, Olympics, or the full team, anytime you get to represent your country in a tournament that prestigious is an unexplainable feeling," Cruz said. "I was fortunate for [coaches] Thomas Rongen and John Hackworth. They helped get me here today."
MLS teams used to have a reserve league so younger players could play competitive games. With the dissolution of the reserve league prior to the 2009 season, international competitions and exhibition matches like the Ryan-Sanders Shootout have become of utmost importance to young players like Cruz.
"For us to be able to get games like this is really important, because you can train all you want, but nothing prepares you more for a league game than playing in your own games," Cruz said. "I am looking forward to it. These kinds of games are very good for our development."
The Dynamo friendly against the Laredo Heat in Corpus Christi comes as Major League Soccer takes a break of almost three weeks for the World Cup, so keeping players in game fitness is a priority for head coach Dominic Kinnear.
"I think this game comes at a good time at that part of the season where maybe guys haven't played a ton since preseason," Kinnear said. "It gives them a chance to play 90 minutes, and we are very pleased with that."
Cruz's hunger to learn and improve his game is evident when he discusses looking to the coaches and veterans for guidance. There is one veteran player in particular he undeniably resembles in style of play and tenacity: outside midfielder Brian Mullan.
"It's no secret that a lot of people compare me to Brian Mullan, and I look up to him to see how he does things," Cruz said. "If I can make a career as successful as his, I see that as a success. That is my plan."
Entering his second MLS season with two youth World Cups already under his belt, Cruz has a bright future ahead of him but remains focused on the task at hand to help the Dynamo win this season.
"Any minutes that I get, whether it is five minutes, 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, I want to go in and make a difference in a game," Cruz said. "My short-term goal is to help us continue to win. If I go in and I do that, then I have done my job."