SAN JOSE, Calif. — The San Jose Earthquakes’ first signing of July shouldn’t really count as such. After all, Rafael Baca’s journey to officially joining the Quakes earlier this month was an act nearly half a year in the making.
“I’m really excited to be back,” Baca said at the top of a recent interview with MLSsoccer.com. “It’s been a long time.”
And then some. Baca first joined the Quakes in February as the team began preparing for the 2011 season. The former Loyola Marymount star had slid through the MLS SuperDraft untouched, and made initial contact with the Quakes by sad happenstance.
Bay Area native David Kucera, a sophomore on the Lions’ squad, died Jan. 9 in his sleep from an enlarged heart. At Kucera’s funeral, Baca ran into Quakes assistant coach Ian Russell, and soon afterwards, he was at the team’s training camp, although in an off-the-books capacity.
Baca trained with the club and played in reserve matches, but he couldn’t take the field for full competitions because of his unresolved immigration status.
Baca, a Mexican citizen who came to America as a child with his parents, was one of thousands of college students who had hoped to receive permanent residency status through passage of the DREAM Act last year. But when that bill died in the US Senate after passage by the House of Representatives, Baca’s path to MLS got that much harder.
Eventually, it became clear that Baca was going to have to return to his native country and wait for his visa application to wend its way through US governmental channels. He left in late May.
“You think it’s going to be real easy, and then you find out how hard it is,” Quakes general manager John Doyle told MLSsoccer.com. “You learn a lot from it, and the player, the person you’re involved with, pulls you into it more because you’re really hoping for that person and pushing for that person.
Even with the team doing all it could to help fast-track Baca’s paperwork, he still spent six weeks in Guadalajara with his extended family.
“It becomes not so much about soccer,” Doyle said. “That one got to be about life. This is serious. This is about giving a kid an opportunity that could be taken away from him.”
Since returning two weeks ago, Baca has made his MLS debut with a second-half appearance against Philadelphia, followed up with a 28-minute stint against Columbus on Saturday and earned more than a half against Vancouver on Saturday as Simon Dawkins had to come out in the 42nd minute with a hamstring problem.
“The biggest thing was just being patient, knowing that I wasn’t playing any games,” Baca said. “Every game I could, I was watching on TV, but it’s different than being here, playing with your teammates. Training with your teammates always helps, because you stay in chemistry with them, stay in rhythm.”
Although he was eclipsed on the depth chart last week with the acquisition of Jacob Peterson, Baca is still a potential answer as the Quakes search for a long-term solution at right midfield. He has also played some on the other side of the field, including Wednesday after replacing Dawkins, with Chris Wondolowski moving up to forward.
“It happened like that,” Baca said of his delayed debut. “I’ve always been of a mind you have to wait for the time to come, and since it’s this time, right now I’m prepared for it.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sjquakes