PHILADELPHIA -- What a difference a day made for Milton Rico.
Last Saturday, the 18-year-old high school senior spent most of his day working as a staff member for Sueño MLS Philadelphia - dividing contestants into teams, fetching balls and performing other behind-the-scenes tasks at YSC Sports Complex.
Less than 24 hours later, Rico found himself on the pitch among the 21 field players invited to compete for the remaining spots at the Sueño MLS 2011 finals in Dallas on May 7-8.
While Rico’s outgoing personality made him an instant hit with the Philadelphia Union coaches at tryouts, none of them suspected that the friendly assistant also possesses serious talent. All that changed once Rico traded in his staff shirt for a soccer jersey late Saturday evening.
“It turns out he was one of the best players here,” Rob Smith, Philadelphia Union’s vice president of soccer development and community relations, said of the surprising young prospect.
Rico emerged from afterthought to potential Sueño MLS finalist thanks to a no-show, which created an opening for the Colombian native to play as a walk-on in one of the opening day’s final scrimmages.
“They needed to fill in a spot, and it was my position,” said Rico, a center midfielder, about his lucky break. “I gave it my best, and fortunately I was able to stand out.”
Just how did Rico stand out? By outrunning, outplaying and outclassing the competition in a scene-stealing performance that left the assessors excited to see more from him the next day.
After a rocky start on Sunday morning, Rico managed to settle his nerves as the day progressed. Little by little, he started to show the same inexhaustible energy, fearless challenges, ball-distribution skills and field of vision that got him noticed in the first place.
By the end of the second day, Philadelphia’s talent scouts agreed that Rico was a legitimate contender to advance to the finals. Some even believe he has the tools to continue playing competitively beyond his teenage years.
“He’s an awesome kid who’s also got the potential to be a really good college-level player,” said Brendan Burke, head coach of Philadelphia Union’s reserve team and the lead scout at Sueño MLS Philadelphia.
As for Rico, he feels that his level of play during tryouts only hints at his true capabilities.
“I hadn’t really played soccer seriously over the past six months because of a broken nose," said Rico. "I was out for a long time after the surgery, so I think I can only get better.”
Though that injury likely convinced him to sign up for Sueño MLS as a staff worker instead of a contestant, Rico jumped at the chance to realize his potential after a series of fortunate events provided him with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Over and over, I had said that I wasn’t interested anymore in soccer as a profession," he said. "But I guess deep down inside I still wanted to see if I could do it."
And pretty soon, he’ll find out.
Did Rico make it? Find out the finalists from Philadelphia on Univision's "Republica Deportiva," on Sunday, May 1, 11 am ET.