Miguel Aguilar remembers getting the call from Ben Olsen on draft day and hearing the word “congratulations.”
“It was just family screaming,” Aguilar recalled. “I couldn’t really hear.”
The University of San Francisco product didn’t travel to last month’s MLS draft in Philadelphia. Instead, he kept tabs from his family’s Sacramento home, watching with his mother, brother, sister and girlfriend.
Aguilar wasn’t sure when he’d be drafted, but he figured he’d have to wait a while. The 21-year-old midfielder was busy texting some already-selected friends when D.C. United went on the clock at No. 17 and his phone rang.
“I think I got too dragged into the speculation,” Aguilar said. “A lot of mock drafts didn’t have me in the first round, so I just figured, ‘OK, maybe second.’ But you never know what to expect.”
Humble expectations are nothing new to Aguilar.
He was born and raised in Juarez, a sprawling city tucked against the Mexico-Texas border. Once considered the world’s deadliest city, Juarez is geographically divided from the United States by the Rio Grande yet culturally separated by a grander gulf.
“Growing up in Juarez, if you played on a grass field you’d made it,” Aguilar said. “When we got here, it was a completely different world. Juarez as a border city, it’s so close — but it’s a completely different lifestyle.”
After his parents’ divorce, Aguilar left Juarez behind at age 11 and moved with his mother, brother and sister to northern California. He declined to go into details about the decision to move, but acknowledged that staying in his hometown wasn’t an option.
Certain aspects of life in Sacramento took some getting used to. Aguilar missed being able to go to his local park and find pickup soccer games around the clock. It was a year before he could hold a conversation in English, and three before he became fluent. Growing up in a single-parent household in an unfamiliar country presented its own hardships.
Yet Aguilar had no problem leaving his mark on the field. At San Francisco, Aguilar was a three-time all-West Coast Conference second-team selection before cracking the first team his senior year.
He thrived in the classroom as well, garnering a trio of all-WCC Academic Team honors. In December, he graduated a semester early with a bachelor’s degree in finance.
“He has a great approach that he brings every single day to practice,” San Francisco coach Eddie Soto said. “He has a very mature and humble way about how he takes care of his business on and off the field. He does extremely well in the classroom, and he just brings that same attitude on the field. He’s very disciplined, and he wants to win.”
Not yet under contract, Aguilar could have a tough time breaking into United’s lineup after the club finished atop the Eastern Conference in 2014. The D.C. staff sees Aguilar as an option at wide midfield, where Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon established themselves as starters last season.
The return to health of midfielder-forward Chris Pontius further muddles the depth chart, as does the presence of MLS veterans Andrew Driver and David Estrada as preseason trialists.
For his part, Aguilar has turned in energetic displays off the bench during United’s exhibitions thus far. Although there is plenty of praise for the 5-foot-9 winger on the attacking side of the ball, it’s taking time for him to grasp the position’s defensive responsibilities.
“He has good days, and some days where he looks young,” Olsen said. “He’s got special qualities in the attacking third but has to clean up some of the defensive stuff. But that’s part of being a young kid out of college.”
Added Rolfe: “He’s a little unorthodox with his movement, but he’s very good. He’s pretty technical, good with his left foot, right foot. He’s actually surprisingly good with his head from what I’ve seen. He still has a lot to learn, but he has a lot of potential.”
It’s raw talent generated in Juarez pickup games, then cultivated by collegiate infrastructure. As such, Aguilar considers his game an amalgamation of American physicality and Mexican creativity.
But he takes the most pride in a scrappy workrate honed in those Juarez fields of dust and dirt.
“I think a lot of my work ethic came from playing there,” Aguilar said. “It was always a competitive environment, you always had to grind for everything. It definitely helped shape the type of player that I am now.”
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