David Estrada says he likes a challenge.
When he was a kid, he always played soccer against the older boys in his East Salinas neighborhood. As a teenager, the Republic FC forward often played against adults. Because of the cost and lack of transportation, he played little club soccer growing up, usually the entryway to the college game.
But he made a name for himself at Alisal High School in Salinas, where he scored a nation-leading 66 goals as a senior and was selected as a two-time Player of the Year by the Salinas Californian and the San Jose Mercury News.
When it came time to pick a college, Estrada passed on scholarship offers from Cal Poly and San Jose State to walk on at national power UCLA.
In his first year with the Bruins in 2006, he was named Soccer America’s National Freshman of the Year in helping the Bruins reach the national championship game.
So after the five-year Major League Soccer veteran was not re-signed by D.C. United in the offseason and tryouts with the Portland Timbers 2 and a Norwegian team fizzled earlier this year, Estrada didn’t brood.
Instead, the 27-year-old cold-called Republic FC technical director Graham Smith about playing for the defending USL champions.
“I asked him if he could give me an opportunity to still prove myself,” Estrada said. “I felt I still had a lot in the engine to help the team out. Thankfully, they welcomed me with open arms. It’s been a great experience.”
Estrada got lucky. Republic FC had been ravaged by injuries, including the loss of popular forward Tommy Stewart to foot surgery.
Smith called D.C. United assistant coach Amos Magee for a character reference on the former MLS SuperDraft first-round pick of the Seattle Sounders.
“He said, ‘The guy’s a diamond,’” Smith said. “David is a good kid, a college star who has played in (50)-odd MLS matches. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Estrada, who was signed on the eve of the USL season, has had an impact for Sacramento. Entering Saturday’s match against the Portland Timbers 2 at Bonney Field, Estrada had a goal and three assists in his six starts.
Last season, Estrada played one MLS match and five reserve league or U.S. Open Cup matches for the Sounders before being traded in August to D.C. United, where he played in nine matches and had two assists for the Eastern Conference regular-season champions.
“I’m not sure what happened with D.C. United, but that’s the way the business goes sometimes,” Estrada said. “It’s been tough to bounce around teams, but I’ve always been confident in myself and that I can help a team.”
As for Republic FC, Estrada said the coaching, the fan support and the way the organization treats its players is about “as close to MLS as you can get playing in the USL.”
He values playing for a veteran coach like Preki. He enjoys being part of a team that has a mix of veteran players and young and hungry up-and-comers.
“He’s working hard, and I think there is more in him,” Preki said. “The more and more he plays with us, the more good things will come out of him. He’s just got to be patient.”
Estrada has had assists on two of Rodrigo Lopez’s five goals, including the stoppage-time 3-2 game winner March 28 at the LA Galaxy II.
“Dave is smart player, and with his MLS experience, he’s brought a lot to the table,” Lopez said. “He’s not selfish up top, which helps us out a lot.”
Estrada stays humble because he feels fortunate that he is being paid to play a game he loves. It wasn’t that long ago that he was an indifferent high school student who gave little thought to attending college. Then Jazz Rodriguez, a cousin, inspired him.
“My cousin knew I wasn’t doing well in school,” Estrada said. “He told me about UCLA being one of the best schools in the nation in soccer, and that if I wanted to be a pro in America, college was the way to go. Obviously, UCLA is very good academically. If I wanted to go, I had to get my grades up. To this day, I wonder how different my life might be if I hadn’t listened to him.”
Now, Estrada says, he’s within a year’s classes of earning a degree and has seen how valuable education is in opening his eyes to a world beyond soccer. So he stresses the importance of education whenever he talks to students from Alisal High School, which is 97 percent Hispanic; 61 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 56 percent are English-proficient.
“When I retire from soccer, I’d like to go back home and teach at my old high school and share my story,” Estrada said. “Maybe I can inspire other kids to go to college.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.