Mike da Fonte may not have become a professional soccer player if not for a chance encounter during a New York MetroStars game at Giants Stadium.
The Republic FC defender was 9 when he participated at a soccer ball juggling station before the game and did so well that members of the MetroStars marketing team invited him onto the field at halftime to compete against six other children. He won the competition, and when he caught a glimpse of his smiling face on the stadium’s big screen, he was hooked.
“That was the first pro soccer game I’d ever gone to,” da Fonte said. “After winning and looking up at the screen, I thought to myself, ‘I need to do this forever.’ ”
Sixteen years later, da Fonte is playing professional soccer at a high level. Da Fonte, whose face has been on dozens of big screens at stadiums around the world, has taken on an expanded role for Republic FC after a knee injury sidelined him for the first 10 games of the season.
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Da Fonte is second on the team in goals despite being a center back more worried about marking the opposition’s best striker. His three goals have come on free kicks, the result of da Fonte gladly launching his body into heavy traffic in front of the goal. Marking backs do not shy away from contact, and scoring a goal is rare and perhaps cherished even more.
“My girlfriend gets really excited when I tell her I scored a goal,” da Fonte said. “It’s not easy to tell her that I marked the striker really well.”
All three of his goals have come off Danny Barrera’s free kicks, two on headers and one a withering cross-goal redirect of his right foot that some of the Orange County Blues players didn’t even see. After da Fonte tied a team record by scoring goals in three consecutive games, the streak ended in Sunday’s 2-1 road loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2.
“Guys like (Chris) Christian and Derek (Foran) are setting picks for him to get open, and he’s been putting them in,” Barerra said. “Mike is doing very well, and in addition to being very strong, he’s mentally tough.”
Da Fonte has had to be mentally tough this year. The Ossining, N.Y., native was the captain of the USL Eastern Conference power New York Red Bulls II last season. In the team’s inaugural season, he was second on the team in minutes (2,092) and led it in both starts (24) and matches (27). He even got a cap when the parent club, the New York Red Bulls, called him up to play in a friendly in July against English Premier League power Chelsea that New York won 4-2.
But da Fonte said the team told him in the offseason that it was promoting nine players from its academy and there no longer was a spot for him.
He said he was devastated that the team, which played just 45 minutes from the only home he’d ever known, no longer wanted him.
“I thought I’d get a chance this season with the big club,” da Fonte said. “I was really upset. But my agent sent tapes to several NASL and USL teams, and I got some offers. I weighed my options and chose Sacramento because they were already a great team and because they’re close to getting an MLS team. I like to think that I went from the best team in the East to the best team in the West.”
Da Fonte, who played professionally for two seasons in Portugal, said he’d never traveled farther west than Salt Lake City before arriving in Sacramento two weeks before training started for the 2016 season. He’s since had time to slip down some water slides in Roseville, travel to Lake Tahoe and the Pacific coast and go on a recent trip with his New York artist girlfriend, Molly Rosner, to San Francisco, where her aunt and uncle live.
He said he’s comfortable on the pitch now that his patellar tendon has healed and he’s asserted himself while in the lineup. It was tough, he said, to be on the sideline after playing so many minutes last season in New York.
“Mike also had to wait because there were quite a few clean sheets (wins),” Republic FC head coach Paul Buckle said. “But since he’s gotten to play, he’s become a real threat on set plays, and he’s playing very good defense. He punches above his weight, and is not going to take anything from any striker.”
Mark Billingsley: email@example.com