Saturday, September 22, 2018
Sports

Success is no stranger to Rowdies' competitive midfielder Avila

ST. PETERSBURG

Eric Avila's track record bodes well for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in this, his first season with the club.

At least it does on the soccer field. On the golf course, his teammates had better watch out, at least the ones who plan on posting a lower scorecard than Avila.

"I've just started to take it seriously in the last year. I can say that I'm okay now," he said.

Based on his soccer exploits, he'll end up better than okay.

Avila has succeeded at every level. He made the under-17 national team and at age 15 was playing for an international tournament championship. At Cal-Santa Barbara, a college not necessarily known for soccer, all he did was lead the Gauchos to their first national title.

And during a nine-year MLS career, Avila scored the goal that propelled Dallas into the 2010 finals.

The 28-year-old — yes, he's that young after playing nine years in the MLS — was on the field all but 34 minutes of the spring season for the Rowdies.

It's been that way for quite some time.

"It's always been soccer. Since I was 4 years old," Avila said.

He grew up in San Diego, bagging a youth club national championship at a Disney Showcase. And by the time he was 15, one year into La Costa Canyon High, normal schooling was over.

Avila was accepted into the USA under-17 residency program in Bradenton, playing alongside current national team stalwart Michael Bradley and Rowdies teammate Freddy Adu.

And far from a given: Avila made it through the program for the maximum two years.

"It's a two-year cycle but every quarter they make cuts. It's pretty intense. Everyone's all nervous to know if they're going to be on that (cut) list," Avila said.

He made 20 appearances with the U-17 club, highlighted by appearing in the finals of the Ballymena International Tournament in Northern Ireland, not to mention some scrimmage victories over Division I college teams.

Then it was time to pick a college himself, and his national status could have landed him anywhere.

Good thing for Cal-Santa Barbara, Avila loves the beach.

"Santa Barbara, no one had really heard of them, they weren't a power," he said. "I chose the beach school."

He earned Big West Conference Freshman of the Year honors after scoring three goals with five assists in 21 games, then everything took off in 2006. Avila scored eight goals and five assists, and the Gauchos won the College Cup, beating rival UCLA in the final.

Avila had the winning goal.

"We had lost to UCLA during the regular season, too. To win the national championship, I still think it's one of my favorite moments," he said.

There have been some pretty good ones since. Leaving school a year early, part of the Generation Adidas program that allows a select group of players to enter the MLS draft and go back to school should things not work out, Avila was selected in the second round (19 overall) by Dallas in 2008.

He was a bench player for his Dallas time but in the third season managed to propel the team into a first-ever MLS Cup finals appearance with his 88th-minute goal against Salt Lake late in the Western Conference finals.

Avila scored just three goals in his Dallas tenure, but that's his professed modus operandi.

"I'm an assist man. That's my style," he said. "I want to score as many goals as I can, obviously, but I want to be around where everything is happening."

After being traded to Toronto in 2012, Avila went to now-defunct Chivas USA and had three goals during the 2013 season. Last year netted a lone goal with Orlando, then a career decision to join the NASL.

"I had some friends (like last year's Rowdies captain Marcelo Saragosa) tell me about the whole organization," Avila said. "It's been great. They've treated me top class, the training facilities are just like MLS teams' and there are great players in the league. A lot more MLS players are coming down, so it's getting harder."

The two-week break allowed Avila to hone those golf skills. He started to take up the sport during his one-season stay with Orlando City.

"My form was really horrible then, but I love it now," he said. "I play during my off time, I'm picking up golf magazines now. If I go to a place like Torrey Pines (Calif.), I pick up a polo. I can hang now. (Teammate) Neill Collins is a really good golfer."

Will Avila ascend to Collins' level though?

"Well … I'm supercompetitive," he said.

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