Cameron Iwasa was used to being the top player during his days at Jesuit High School and UC Irvine.
He scored 42 goals as a senior at Jesuit and in his two years on the varsity helped the Marauders win back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section championships and earn a national No. 2 ranking while winning 58 of 59 matches.
Iwasa tied a school record at UC Irvine for matches played with 85, scored 22 goals and helped the Anteaters reach the NCAA playoffs three times during his four years.
So Iwasa admits he got a false sense of his readiness as a professional when he started two of Republic FC’s first three matches and scored a goal during his rookie campaign last season.
But it wasn’t long before Iwasa felt more like a yo-yo than a promising forward. Starts became rare. Minutes played were few and precious.
Although there was one highlight-reel performance when he came off the bench in the 58th minute and scored the game-winning goal to beat English Premier League side Sunderland AFC 1-0 in a friendly last July, Iwasa didn’t play or wasn’t even among the 18 players to suit up in 12 USL matches.
“When I first came in last year there were a lot of injuries,” Iwasa said. “Tommy Stewart, Justin Braun and RoRo (Rodrigo Lopez) were hurt. I think I got a little bit of a false sense of security getting those early starts.”
Iwasa, 22, tried to stay positive as he realized how much of a grind the pro game can be. Competition was keen up top because Sacramento had at least seven forwards throughout most of the season.
“When I came out of college, I was young and talented, but didn’t have the mental side of it,” Iwasa said. “I wasn’t used to the day-to-day intensity in practice. But last year’s experience also was good for me. I have come a long way in a short time, and I feel I am a much better player than when I came here.”
Iwasa is emerging as Republic FC’s go-to scorer coach Paul Buckle has sought since the departure of Lopez after last season. Iwasa’s first two-goal game as a pro Saturday helped Sacramento defeat the River Valley Grande FC Toros 3-2 and earned him this week’s USL Player of the Week honors.
His unassisted goal 38 seconds into the game against the Toros was the fastest in Republic FC history. His header goal from a Danny Barrera corner kick in the 54th minute was Republic FC’s first league corner-kick goal since 2014. He barely missed on two goal-scoring opportunities, including a header from another Barrera corner kick that hit off the back post.
Iwasa, who leads the team with six goals, has scored four in the past six matches. He is showing an impressive efficiency in league play, too, with five goals in just 25 shot attempts.
Entering Saturday night’s game at Arizona United SC, Iwasa had played more matches than any other Republic FC player this season. He has more than doubled his minutes played from 2015.
“He is a great example to a lot of younger players that you’ve got to persist,” Buckle said. “You’ve got to keep working hard (because) all of a sudden, in a short space of time, (goals) will start to come to fruition.”
Buckle said the 5-foot-10 Iwasa has become a difficult player to take off the field because “his fitness levels are excellent,” he’s a good defender and he’s versatile. Iwasa can play up top as a striker, underneath as a withdrawn forward, or out wide on either side.
Iwasa wants to stay on the field, too, because he sees how well things are falling into place for Sacramento, which has climbed into second place in the Western Conference. Republic FC is unbeaten in its past seven league matches and that franchise record three-match USL losing streak earlier in the season appears to be an anomaly.
“It just shows how far we’ve come,” Iwasa said. “We’re creating a lot more opportunities, getting a lot more chances. The hard work we’ve put out here in training is starting to show up in the games.”