GUADALAJARA, Mexico – It wasn't too long ago that 20-year-old Adrian Ruelas looked poised to break out as one of the next rising talents in soccer.
The striker had made his professional debut in Mexico’s first division at the age of 19 with Santos Laguna, was being called into the US youth national team squads, and even booked a short-term loan over the pond with Scottish Premier League giants Celtic FC.
But life as a young soccer player trying to make the grade is rarely plain sailing, even for the most talented ones. Ruelas quickly found that out.
The Fontana, Calif., native has experienced a tricky spell these last six months, after moving on another loan from Santos, this time to fellow Primera División side Jaguares, in the summer under the premise that first-team soccer would be forthcoming.
The problem was that the electric form of Colombian strikers Jackson Martínez, Luis Rey and Franco Arizala left Ruelas stuck in the Chiapas’ Under-20 squad.
“It was really tough for me not being able to play last season,” an open and honest Ruelas told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Tuxtla Gutiérrez on Wednesday. “It was tough to manage that situation mentality.”
Ruelas, who describes himself as a striker most adept in the penalty box, admits the change of club and city – the difference between the northern city of Torreón, where Santos is based, and Tuxtla, the home of Jaguares, is huge – did affect him. But in the long run, believes he´ll benefit from the experience and says he’s already mentally tougher.
“From what I learned in the last six months, it's made me a stronger person and a better player,” he explained. “This season, I've felt stronger mentally and I think I've learned that part that I needed in my career, and I think it has helped.
“I've noticed and I've felt that the coaches and the staff have more confidence towards me,” said Ruelas. “I feel more comfortable than last season and it helps me to be able to play how I like to play. I really do feel that this season I could get some minutes.”
But Ruelas is no stranger to a good challenge.
Since leaving his Southern California home at age 15, Ruelas has had stints at five clubs in three countries.
He initially left for Mexico for CD Guadalajara, who had spotted him at a tournament in San Diego, and spent six months with the club before returning north for a brief spell with Chivas USA.
Ruelas then impressed during a trial at Santos and, after joining their youth system, worked his way up to the first team, where he played just 11 minutes in the Clausura 2011 tournament.
A loan to Celtic with an option for purchase at the back end of 2010 followed, but he was unable to make his mark and returned to Mexico on a loan deal to Jaguares, where he maintains that his main short-term ambitions are to score his first goal as a pro and become at least a regular on the bench.
Then there is the Olympics.
With the base of the US Under-23 squad meeting up at the Home Depot Center this week for to get ready for what they hope will be a successful run this summer, Ruelas knows he is on the outside looking in. But he’s not letting hope go.
“If I get a shot and they call me, I'm ready,” assured Ruelas. “Making the Olympic team is a big goal for this year.”
Ruelas, who speaks Spanish fluently and whose parents hail from northern Mexico, reflects on his winding journey and accepts that moving south of the border was a difficult decision, but it was the best option for his fledgling career.
If Major League Spccer were as big as it is now when he embarked on his journey five years ago, when MLS teams hadn’t yet overhauled their youth systems, he admits the story could have been different.
“Everything has changed,” he said. “Now it’s different. I probably would’ve loved staying close to home and getting into a more local team.”
Ruelas says he misses California, his family and friends, but that he has adapted to life in Mexico, where he spent the majority of his teenage years.
“I always love going back,” he said. “There are things you can't buy with all the money in the world.”
The striker is hoping that the sacrifice he has made in his personal life will soon translate into first team goals, and, perhaps, a shot at Olympic glory with the US over the next few months.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.