Jhonny Arteaga never had a Plan B.
Like all his childhood friends, the Colombian-born Arteaga, who grew up in Stamford, Conn., had always wanted to play professional soccer. But all people saw was a scrawny kid with decent technique who pasted Ronaldo posters all over his bedroom walls.
Arteaga’s friends laugh recalling that he even sported the star’s signature shaved-head Mohawk to go along with a slight gap-toothed grin.
But it wasn’t just for looks. Arteaga’s determination bordered on obsession. And today, it’s lifted him from soccer obscurity to a trial with the New York Red Bulls.
For four years at Division II powerhouse Dominican College, Arteaga was always the last one off the practice field. If he couldn’t train, he was in the gym lifting weights. If friends went out partying, he was rehabbing in the trainer’s room or prepping for an individual workout the next morning. On nights before games, his roommate had to hang out in a friend’s room if he planned on being up past 10 pm.
After graduation, while his teammates transitioned into the working world and their dream turned into a weekend hobby, Arteaga, a 2007 All-American his senior year, refused to re-prioritize. Instead, he chased his dream around the world.
Five years, countless teams, and three continents later, Arteaga, 25, is on the precipice of landing not only his first MLS contract, but one with the team for which he always dreamed he might play.
“I’m really grateful to be here, I’m having fun, and I’m getting more comfortable every day,” Arteaga told MLSsoccer.com this week from Red Bulls camp in Mexico. “This isn’t my first club, and I’ve played with some good players, but it’s hard not to step back and say, ‘Wow’ when you go up against Rafa [Márquez] in a training drill.”
Rewind a few years, when Arteaga was playing for the Western Massachusetts Pioneers in the USL Second Division — and regularly driving three hours away to training. Seeing Arteaga struggling to make ends meet, Diego Miranda, Arteaga’s college roommate and childhood friend, asked him if he had ever considered a backup plan.
“He was 22, the rest of us had all gotten jobs, and here he was driving up to Massachusetts, barely making enough money for the gas,” Miranda said. “I asked him, 'What’s your plan B? What if this isn’t going to happen?' He looked at me, and said, ‘There is no plan B. I am going to play soccer.'”
Later that season, Arteaga left the Pioneers and had every opportunity to throw in the towel on a pro career. For months he circled the country on trials in search of a new club, and finally in the summer of 2010 signed with LKS Lomza in the Polish third division.
Talk about a long commute.
A winter living alone in an apartment with spotty hot water and a temperamental heater, though, persuaded Arteaga to take another stab at pro soccer closer to home. After a stint with an Ecuadorian club, he decided he wanted to be near family and friends, so he penned a six-month deal with FC New York in the USL Pro Select league for the 2011 season.
At first he came off the bench, but his work ethic and nose for goal earned him a spot the starting lineup. By season’s end, Arteaga was the league’s top scorer with 13 goals in 21 league appearances and a nominee for league MVP.
Arteaga faced the Red Bulls twice last year — when FC New York visited for the fourth round of the US Open Cup, and then as a guest player with the Columbus Crew reserves in the fall. Looking to bolster the attack with uncertainty surrounding the status of Luke Rogers and Juan Agudelo, the Red Bulls offered Arteaga a guest spot on their reserve team and later an invitation to preseason.
“Getting the chance to play in Red Bull Arena last year gave me a little taste and reminded me how close I was,” Arteaga said.
He immediately contributed for the reserves, coming off the bench in his first game to score second a half brace en route to a 2-1 victory over Philadelphia. So far this preseason, Arteaga has played in all three of New York’s friendlies and started in their Mexico finale against Tecos.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing pro — that drive has always been there,” he said. “Everyone is different, so if I had to work harder than the other guy, I did it. I chose this path and right here is where I have always wanted to be.”