As much as Max Alvarez tries to maintain a cool, calm exterior, there’s that inner voice that still occasionally whispers: “Is this really happening?”
The 22-year-old former Napa High School and Sacramento State standout is living his dream of playing professional soccer, and he’s doing it close to friends and family.
He’s a 5-foot-10, 160-pound outside midfielder for Republic FC, Sacramento’s new professional team that plays its anticipated home opener Saturday at Hughes Stadium and aspires to one day be a Major League Soccer franchise.
“I don’t think I’d be playing if it wasn’t for this team,” Alvarez said.
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Alvarez is one of two players to make the 24-man roster from a series of open tryouts. Now he is a teammate with several former MLS players, including forward Justin Braun, who Alvarez watched play for Chivas USA growing up. He is coached by Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic, one of the most famous players in MLS history.
Through Republic FC’s first five matches – all on the road – he has established himself as an important contributor, the left-footer who takes most of the Republic’s corner and free kicks.
On April 3, Alvarez scored his first goal and helped set up two others in the Republic’s most impressive win to date, a 3-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy II, the leader of the 14-team United Soccer League Pro.
“That just showed that when we are on the same page and working together, we can be something special,” Alvarez said.
It’s the same type of performance Alvarez and his teammates hope to put on against the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday, when Hughes Stadium is expected to be filled to near capacity.
“Knowing that there is the possibility of 20,000 people coming to watch us is pretty special, not only for the team but for the city,” Alvarez said. “I know Sacramento soccer fans have been waiting for this moment for a long time. As long as we get results, we’ll get the fan support. Then I expect nothing less than one day being MLS.”
It wasn’t long ago that Alvarez thought his playing days were over. Tryouts with the MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids were unsuccessful, so he continued his studies at Sac State, earning a communications degree.
But when he heard the Republic started and was holding open tryouts, he trained hard to prepare, gave his all during the tryouts, then waited nervously for several days wondering if he would hear from the team. Then technical director Graham Smith called.
“At first it was surreal,” Alvarez said. “All I could do was think about my father. He always dreamed of me being a professional and pursuing my dream.”
Preki said Alvarez’s abundant talent was apparent during the tryouts.
“He’s a lefty, and he’s good around the goal,” Preki said.
But while Alvarez has had his moments, his coach considers him a work in progress.
“He’s obviously never been in this type of environment where every day, every second, every play is incredibly important,” Preki said. “He’s had his moments, but we need more from him. We need more consistency. We need him to be involved in every play.”
Alvarez said he marvels at his coach, the former two-time MLS MVP and career leader in points with 79 goals and 112 assists.
“I’m learning about intensity – that you can’t take plays off,” Alvarez said. “He’s teaching me to have the confidence to take defenders on. I’ve learned so much from him so far, and there is still a lot to learn.”
Alvarez grew up wanting to be a pro player. But even after standout careers at Napa – he also was a kicker on the football team – and with the Davis Legacy, he was low on the recruiting radar.
One exception was Sac State coach Mike Linenberger. He often saw Alvarez play for the Legacy during his high school years because Linenberger’s son, Matt, was on a rival competitive club team.
“It seemed every time I’d come to a game that he was playing, Max would score a goal,” Linenberger said. “He has this fantastic left foot, so I had my eyes on him for a long time. He wasn’t the big, strong, bruising athlete, so I think some coaches overlooked him. He also was pretty quiet, but you could see he had a competitive fire burning inside.”
Alvarez said he wasn’t bothered that the only recruiting interest he received was from Sac State, UC Davis and Saint Mary’s. He didn’t plan to venture far from home anyway.
“I’m really close to my family,” said Alvarez, whose parents, two sisters, brother and extended family will see him play Saturday. “I wanted to go somewhere where they could see my games and I could visit home. Going to Sac State turned out pretty well.”
Alvarez had an immediate impact. As a second-team freshman All-American in 2009, he had 10 goals and three assists while helping the Hornets earn their second Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title and first NCAA Tournament berth, perhaps the finest season in Sac State history.
Linenberger said Alvarez’s laser goal from 30 yards out that found the upper corner of the net to tie powerhouse UCLA 1-1 (the Bruins went on to win 2-1) in the NCAA second round rates as one of the best he’s seen in 25 years as the Hornets’ coach.
Alvarez’s goal for the Republic was impressive, too. He picked up a pass from about 25 yards out, dribbled through three Galaxy II defenders and, despite being flipped head over heels by goalkeeper Brian Rowe, slipped the ball past him from inside the box to put Republic FC up 2-0 before halftime.
“For a little while, I was intimidated by some of my teammates because they were veterans and guys I used to watch play on TV,” Alvarez said. “But now I’m feeling really good – that I can play with them.”
Those inner-voice whispers are growing fainter.