CARSON, Calif. – Steven Manuel Ortiz figured his shot at winning Sueño MLS' El Portero Allstate goalkeeper competition had ended just as it was getting started.
"I was really nervous, and in the first exercise I was missing the ball," said the 14-year-old netminder from Linden, N.J. "I thought I was out already, but with each practice I was getting better. Every practice I was like, 'Try harder! Try harder!'
"In the beginning I was kind of shaky, but by the fourth day it was easier for me, and I just did it better."
Ortiz did it very well, enough so to claim the top prize Sunday at StubHub Center and win a spot with the New York Red Bulls Academy. That's a dream come true for the Cali, Colombia, native, who has been passionate about goalkeeping since he was 4 and saw one diving to get to a ball.
He's developed skills under former pro Ruben Garcia Ruiz at TSF Academy, and former Mexican star Martin Zuñiga was most impressed with his performance in Southern California.
"He improved a lot in a week," Zuñiga said. "He's 14, so the roof is quite high for him. The other kids did a great job, but my feeling is that Ortiz was the best at each area.
"He's agile, has a really good command of his defense, is very good in the air, and one of the most important things right now for goalkeepers is he plays very good with his feet. This made a difference."
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It's the first step in a dream that's been a long time coming, fueled in part by his father, former Deportivo Cali defender Manuel "Chonto" Ortiz.
"My dream is to play professionally, but I've always wanted to play for a [top-flight] academy, so In could gt seen. Just to be at that high level," he said. "When I go to Red Bulls games, I just feel it. I feel I want to be on that field and just training. Even on the bench. ...
"If you have a chance, take it. You can't just wait for it, you have to go look for it. My dream is, like, Red Bulls, to be able to play for the Red Bulls."
The Red Bulls have been eying Ortiz since his showing during their Sueño tryouts two weeks ago, and he attended an Academy practice at the behest of their staff.
"[The players] were like, 'Are you coming [to the Academy]?' 'No, just checking it out,' " Ortiz said. "It was so fun. I just like the high level. They pressure you to get better. I like that. That's how professionals are. We watched Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy practice, and if you mess up, they force you to get it back, and they fight for each other."
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Zuñiga also was impressed by the other two goalkeeping finalists, Ernesto Galvan of Commerce City, Colo., and Jorge Rizo of El Monte, Calif., both 15, but said it was little things -- such as Ortiz's infectious personality -- that boosted the winner.
"It was the little details that separated him from the others," Zuñiga said. "For instance, Rizo is a very tall athlete, he's very mobile and very agile, but he wasn't as quick as, for instance, Galvan. Ortiz had the combination of both of them. He's not too tall but he's not small and he's very fast. I think right now he's the best option for Sueño MLS.
"He's 14, and in the next couple of years, he's going to learn a lot, going to gain just by playing every day. He's going to learn a lot of different technical things and gain an understanding of the game and improve. He's the perfect age to take advantage of training every day."