Republic FC players set aside day jobs to play under lights

Cameron Iwasa lives at home with his parents. James Kiffe is still paying student loans. Alfonso Motagalvan worked as a community college assistant coach.

Mackenzie Pridham put a promising entrepreneurial career on hold. Danny Barrera once was so strapped for cash, he almost sold his car.

When it comes to playing in the third-tier USL, where the salaries are modest and the odds of reaching Major League Soccer are long, even those Republic FC players with prestigious educations say pursuing their pro soccer dreams is worth holding off potentially more lucrative business, medical and entrepreneurial opportunities.

“If it was only about the money, I wouldn’t be playing. It’s as simple as that,” said Pridham, a 25-year-old Cal Poly graduate in his first season with Sacramento. “The lifestyle, the locker room environment, the games – it’s something I could never experience working in an office.”

Kiffe had an unsuccessful tryout with the San Jose Earthquakes after his career at UC Santa Barbara and battled foot injuries before making his pro debut in 2014 at age 25 with Republic FC.

“I’m doing something I love,” Kiffe said. “I know I could be making more money working in an office. But I’ve got the rest of my life to do that.”

Motagalvan, 29, is Republic FC’s third-oldest player. He has a degree in psychology and ethnic studies from UCSB, where he was a member of the Gauchos’ 2006 NCAA Division I national championship team.

He’s played seven years in the minors and said he’s been able to pursue professional soccer because he’s had decent contracts most of his career as well as a supportive fiancée who has encouraged him to stay on the pitch even when he thought about quitting.

The average USL salary is about $1,800 a month, though rookies often make as little as $1,000 a month while top-level veterans can earn as much as $5,000 to $7,000 per month during the season. Teams also offer accommodations that can include subsidized rent, training tables and travel per diems.

The average MLS salary is $316,777 annually – the median is $117,000 – according to the league’s player union.

“I’ve played with guys that were making $500 a month, which you can’t survive on, and I’ve played with guys who were making $4,000 to $5,000 a month, which you can survive on,” said Motagalvan, who has played with Chivas USA and FC Dallas reserve teams and in the North American Soccer League and USL. “I’ve been blessed to be in the median salary range most of my career, so I’ve made a decent living.”

Making sacrifices

Iwasa, 22, was chosen in the fourth round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by the Montreal Impact. But when the Impact had no room on its MLS roster, the club offered the former Jesuit High School and UC Irvine star an opportunity with its USL affiliate startup, FC Montreal.

But Iwasa did the math, and the modest contract offer didn’t pencil out.

“Montreal is a pretty expensive city, so it made my decision to come back to California pretty easy,” Iwasa said.

He said he lives with his parents out of convenience rather than necessity.

“It’s always nice saving some money,” Iwasa said. “And there’s always food on the table, and my mom still does my laundry. That’s hard to beat. But regardless of where I’m at next year, I’m looking to move out and spread my wings a little bit.”

Barrera said his drive to play professionally was so strong he once considered selling his car to raise enough money to fly to Europe and try out with a team.

“It’s a tough life in that you can find yourself without a contract, scrapping for money and having trouble paying the bills,” said Barrera, who hopes to coach professionally once his playing career ends. “But if you love it, you’ll find a way. You’ll make the sacrifices.”

Barrera, 26, said soccer has given him experiences he probably wouldn’t get in a conventional job.

“I’ve gotten to travel the world, see other cultures and had the chance to really grow and learn,” said Barrera, who like Kiffe and Motagalvan played at UCSB. “It’s not something many people get a chance to do.”

Money isn’t everything

Pridham could be on his way to earning his first $1 million if he hadn’t turned pro three years ago. He studied entrepreneurship at Cal Poly and his senior project resulted in a gig with internet startup Edufii, a company that created a digital app for coaches, athletes and parents.

“You can build a virtual résumé of your career,” Pridham said. “Think of it as having a comprehensive diary of when you started playing as a youth to when you are in college or even a pro, with videos, notes, coaching points and more.”

He said the company has started taking off, especially with golf, where the app is ideal for a sport that involves so much individual technique and training.

Kiffe was well into his college soccer career when he realized he might be able to play for pay.

He walked on at UCSB, where he is still paying off student loans, and wasn’t even on the travel squad early in his junior season. By the end of his senior season, Kiffe was the Big West Conference Defender of the Year.

When Kiffe was invited to an MLS combine, he devoted his energy to trying to become a pro. He said he probably would have been unable to pursue soccer without the financial and emotional support of his parents.

“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had more options than maybe someone who comes from a low-income family and has to find a job to support himself,” Kiffe said. “I didn’t feel I had to find a job to survive.”

Still, Kiffe said he had worked more than his share of jobs to help pay the bills while he sought a pro contract.

“I’ve worked in restaurants and bars, and I worked in construction and landscaping – I’ve done a lot of stuff,” said Kiffe, who is close to earning his degree in psychology at UCSB. “When you are working 40 hours a week, it makes you appreciate being able to play soccer for a living.”

Yet even now as one of Republic FC’s established starters, Kiffe makes sacrifices.

He keeps a tight rein on the budget – “You have to accept that you are not going to go out to dinner all the time” ‑ and said he can’t entertain the thought of having a serious relationship.

“It’s easier being single,” he said. “I want to play at the highest level, so you’ve got to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. And I couldn’t even think about raising a child right now. Financially it wouldn’t be possible.”

Career tug of war

In other major American sports, being drafted in the top 10 can financially set up an athlete for life before his first practice. But the situation can be different for MLS draftees.

Republic FC midfielder JJ Koval, picked ninth overall by the Earthquakes in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, made a base salary of $48,500 as a rookie.

After being cut by the Earthquakes this year, Koval said he remains dedicated to soccer despite having a degree in human biology from Stanford.

“I’m just focused on soccer, focused on this season and focused on having a really good season as a group,” said Koval, who is 24 and married. “This is my career right now. But no one can play forever. So when the time comes around, I’m glad I’ve got my degree. It will be a little bit of a jump-start regarding what I want to do next.”

Former Republic FC forward Adnan Gabeljic decided to jump-start his other career after retiring from pro soccer before the season.

Gabeljic, 24, has an engineering degree from Saint Louis and now works for a San Francisco-based company as a structural field engineer. He said he makes substantially more than he would if he had played this season with Republic FC.

“I knew I was going to do engineering,” said Gabeljic, who wouldn’t say how much he makes or what he was pulling in with Republic FC. “I didn’t want to be 33 years old and starting an entry-level position. It was just a safer route to start my career. I had fun playing, but there’s always a lot of anxiety when you are sitting there waiting for your chance to play.”

But while the life of a minor-league soccer player is challenging, everyone agrees that putting “pro athlete” on a résumé can help open doors.

“So much goes into being a pro athlete,” Pridham said. “You have to be able to handle hard work, have character and mental strength. You have to deal with disappointment, a lot of challenges that the average person going to work every day doesn’t face.”

Pridham said he keeps in touch with a number of connections he’s made in the Bay Area and through the Cal Poly business program. He thinks those contacts could help him transition to a business career once he is done with soccer.

Iwasa aspires to a long pro career but is interested in a possible technology sales career in the future. He’s looked closely at TE Connectivity, a $12 billion worldwide technology company that designs and manufactures connectivity and sensor products for a variety of industries.

“One of my teammates at Irvine, his dad was a vice president,” said Iwasa, who plans to finish his degree in business economics in the fall. “I was talking to him about how I might get into it. It’s really sparked my interest.”

Motagalvan hopes to use his psychology degree as a college coach and instructor. He worked as a men’s assistant soccer coach at Folsom Lake College last fall and already has his National B coaching license. He plans to earn a master’s degree in sports management from Fresno Pacific.

Before he signed with Republic FC last season, Motagalvan said he seriously contemplated retirement.

“But my fiancée said, ‘No,’ I’d regret it,” he said of Kristen Hoskinson, an intensive care unit nurse at UC Davis Medical Center. “She said, ‘If this is what you love, you’ve got to do it as long as you can.’ 

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

Related stories from Sacramento Bee