OBETZ, Ohio — Growing up in baseball-mad Venezuela, Columbus Crew striker Emilio Rentería stood out. Many of his friends found themselves drawn to the diamond, but Rentería knew at an early age that his passion was elsewhere.
“My father used to play baseball, too,” the Crew striker explained, "but from my home, I saw this soccer field, so I was never really interested in baseball, only soccer."
A family friend, Feliciano Bueno, saw talent in the Rentería and made a suggestion that changed his life.
“He took me out of the barrio and to the center of the town, where there were soccer schools,” Rentería said.
He was eight years old at the time.
“You’re leaving your mom and your friends, so obviously you get scared,” said Rentería, now 26. “I was very lucky I always had my friends back in the barrio where I could stay in contact with them and my mom, and they gave me good advice through the years.”
Rentería's faith and family have helped him through any rough patches along the way. On his new white Blackberry, the striker has two screensavers he alternates — one is his girlfriend, the other is Pope John Paul II.
His exploits in the Caracas academies caught the attention of Venezuela’s soccer federation and he became a regular on their youth teams and, eventually, the full side.
Rentería began his pro career at age 17 in Spain’s second division back in 2001. He spent three years there before returning home to Venezuela’s first division, eventually signing with the Crew in August 2009. The move to the US had its challenges – he is still not comfortable speaking to the media in English – but he was better prepared than some international players.
“It wasn’t as difficult because I was used to traveling quite a bit on my own,” he said. “The biggest thing now is still missing my family.”
Rentería struggled a bit in his first season in MLS. After arriving in August 2009, he scored two goals in five games played. The next season wasn't much of an improvement, as the striker tallied five times in 19 matches. This year, however, he's on pace to surpass his combined totals of the previous season.
In six games in 2011, Rentería has scored four times, all in the past three games, to move hime into a second-place tie on the MLS scoring charts. He credits the support from his girlfriend’s recent one-month stay as a reason for his good play. Not bad for a player who was a center back as a kid.
“I was scoring on free kicks and corners, so they put me in the midfield and I kept scoring, then the coach said go to forward,” he said.
Rentería is known for his booming shot but this season he’s scored off a header, with the left foot (the first of his career, he claims) and two penalty kicks.
Coach Robert Warzycha likes the way Renteria has progressed since joining the Crew.
“He’s more mature and reads the game much better,” he said. “He’s allowing his teammates to help him. He’s not trying to turn and go through four defenders. He’s actually dropping the ball, not as often as I would like to yet, but he’s doing much better than when he came.”