It wasn’t that long ago that Octavio Guzman and Max Alvarez were college rivals. Guzman starred at Chico State; Alvarez at Sacramento State.
“I remember Octavio because he had a tremendous work ethic and scored a couple of lucky goals on us,” Alvarez said with a smile.
The two are midfield teammates for Republic FC, and their first seasons as professional players are winding down.
They say they have learned much during the past seven months about handling the mental and physical grind of being a pro athlete.
They are pleased to have played important roles for the first-year franchise’s remarkable inaugural season that includes a second-place finish and playoff berth in USL Pro while setting league attendance records. They hope to be playing for a championship in three weeks.
Alvarez, a 23-year-old outside midfielder from Napa, has played in 26 matches, started 23 and is among the USL Pro leaders in assists with seven and also has two goals. Guzman, a 23-year-old defensive midfielder who grew up in Bay Point near Pittsburg, has played in 28 matches and started 20 and has two goals and two assists.
“You could see since Day One that Max was going to be a player who is going to make a difference on this team,” said veteran midfielder Rodrigo Lopez. “He’s had some good games for us.
“Octavio is the hardest worker on the team and he makes no excuses,” Lopez added. “I admire the way he has adjusted to playing a new position. He was a forward in college, and now he’s playing more of a defensive role.”
Republic FC coach Preki is a little more discriminating in his praise of the duo.
“So far they have done a fair job,” Preki said. “I still think there is a lot more there from both. They are going to take some time because these guys have been playing in college (Alvarez also has played with the semi-pro Tucson FC and Sacramento Gold).
“Not to disrespect the college game, but the college and pro games are a lot different. The speed of play is greater, the players tougher. This is their job, so they play hard every day.”
As a star in college, Alvarez admits he didn’t have to leave it on the field every day at practice. It’s different with Republic FC.
“In college you know as one of top players, you’re guaranteed a spot,” Alvarez said. “Here there is no taking days off because you have all these good players from all over the place who want to play.”
Alvarez started six of the team’s first seven matches but then spent a short span on the bench after a sub-par defensive spell.
“I hit a little rough patch,” Alvarez said. “Earlier in the season, my confidence was low. It took me some time to figure out what the coaches wanted of me. But you can’t hang your head, you’ve got to keep pushing because there are other people who want to take your spot. I think that stretch helped me to get to where I’m at now.”
Lopez said Alvarez is now playing “great soccer, his best of the season.”
“Unfortunately, Max had a couple of games where he had to sit,” Lopez said. “But that’s what makes this team so strong. Guys here are coming off the bench and taking advantage. It makes Preki’s job tough.”
Guzman said he struggled early in the season adjusting to being more of a defensive player and missed some time with injuries, including a separated shoulder.
“I’m still struggling with the position, but I feel I’m getting better and starting to have fun with it,” Guzman said. “But being on the sidelines, you realize how much you want to be on the field. It pushes you to get better.”
Despite the aches and pains from playing more than two dozen matches, the fast-paced practices, keen competition and lengthy season, Guzman says he feels more relaxed than when he was in college.
“For me, playing in college was more draining because you also have homework, you have to go to class and sometimes you don’t eat right and you don’t go to sleep until late at night. Here, you can rest after practice. Your focus is on soccer.”
They say it’s good to be on a team with a mix of veterans and young players. They say watching the gifted Lopez, a former Major League Soccer player, inspires them.
“I learn a lot just by watching him on the field,” Alvarez said. “He’s so calm, so smart on the ball. As young guys, we look up to what he has to offer on the field.”