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New dad tries to keep professional soccer dream going with Rowdies

Maria Isabel Carabano, left, watches as husband and Rowdies midfielder Juan Guerra kisses their son, Santiago, after a season-opening 0-0 tie with the Indy Eleven on April 2. Guerra didn’t play in the game, something that in the past would have frustrated him for days. But since the birth of Santiago, Guerra says, his mind-set has changed.
Published Jun. 3, 2016

Maria Isabel Carabano watches from the stands as her husband, Juan Guerra, helplessly paces the sideline during the Rowdies' season opener. His mood gets darker with every tick of the game clock.

When they were first dating, he would go straight to the lockers after a bad game —without even looking at her. He would be inconsolable for two, sometimes three days.

As his girlfriend, she used to get mad. Now, as a new mother, she worries.

She looks down at their 3-month-old son, Santiago. This is his first soccer game.

Juan is 29. He is Venezuelan and has one of seven Rowdies roster spots available to international players. To keep his job, he has to bring something to the field an American player can't. The competition is always fierce. Santiago was born just before preseason training started, and two-a-day practices on three hours' sleep take a toll. Maria's green card doesn't allow her to work, so Juan is the sole breadwinner. And they just bought a house.

The score is tied. Juan looks helpless.

This is just like the game when Maria learned she was pregnant. The team was on the road. Juan texted to tell her they tied and he didn't play. She decided it wasn't the best time to tell him.

Instead, she got construction paper and cut out multicolored letters to spell out "Vas a ser papa!" You're going to be a father!

She spread the letters on the floor by the door and waited to surprise him. He couldn't have been more excited. Everything began to change.

Juan has taken training to a new level. Now he makes sure he is the one who turns on the lights to the team training room in the morning. His diet is spartan. He says he has always played soccer the way he lives life. Intensely. Maria and Santiago are his lifeline. He can push further because they pull him back when he gets too intense.

The final whistle blows on a 0-0 tie. Juan didn't play. The player's wives wait for their husbands near the tunnel. Maria looks nervous.

Most Rowdies are signing autographs for fans, kissing their kids, sweaty-hugging their girlfriends.

Maria, 28, stands with the other wives and smiles meekly as they pair with their husbands one at a time. Juan begins to do field sprints on the pitch. Minutes tick by.

He had assured Maria he could give 100 percent on the field and 100 percent when he comes home. Another minute ticks by.

He stays on the field. Maria and Santiago stand alone.

Juan finishes a sprint, pivots toward Maria, cracks a smile like it's Christmas and sprints toward them. He hoists Santiago into the air first, then kisses his wife. Juan beams and shows his son off to teammates. He takes Maria's hand.

For most of his life, his soccer career has been everything.

"Now that I have them, there is a complete other world that I didn't even know, and it's something even bigger," he says. "I love that we're going to go home and he's going to sleep on my chest and I'll look over at her sleeping next to me. The three of us just together. That is what is precious to me."

• • •

Juan started the next eight games after the opener. He was named to the NASL team of the week the third week in May.

Contact John Pendygraft at pendygraft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8247.

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