GUADALAJARA, Mexico — It’s been 10 months since Diego Restrepo last minded the nets for the University of Virginia. But last weekend, the 23-year-old South Floridian got a crash course in just how far he’s come from his Charlottesville days.
Restrepo was the man in goal for Colombian powerhouse América de Cali as los Diablos Rojos took on Atlético Nacional in front of a fevered crowd of some 30,000, giving the young American a front seat to one of the biggest derbies in Latin America.
“It was unbelievable,” Restrepo told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Colombia on Wednesday. “We got woken up by the fans outside the hotel and the game was at eight at night. It was a lot different than your normal MLS game.”
The game was a personal high for Restrepo, despite his team losing 4-2.
“The result could have been catastrophic but for the superb performance of 'keeper Diego Restrepo,” wrote Colombian daily El País, in a sentiment shared by all the match reports.
After joining Colombia’s most popular team this past January, Restrepo was joint No. 2 goalkeeper for his first six months and played only a handful of games. Then, after a successful preseason, he had seemingly wrested the No. 1 spot after playing the opening two games of the season.
But life as an American player in Latin America can change abruptly, as Restrepo found out this week. The coach who brought Restrepo to América, Álvaro Aponte, was sacked on Tuesday and new interim coach William Piedrahita has decided to bench the former Cavalier netminder in favor of experienced recent signing Julian Viáfara, 33, at least for Friday’s game at Envigado.
“It is a little unfortunate, but you know how soccer is,” said Restrepo. “The thing in Colombia is that it is too much politics, too much about who brought you and how old you are, especially in the goalkeeping position.”
Restrepo, the US ‘keeper during the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru, was born in Venezuela and raised in Colombia until he was nine, when his family moved to West Palm Beach, Fla. But despite his three passports, there’s no doubt that he feels very much American.
“It was the country that gave me and my family everything, and I’m very thankful for that,” he said. “I feel like an American, and even here [in Colombia], I’m an American.”
Restrepo won a full scholarship at the US Soccer academy in Bradenton, Fla., and graduated from the Under-17 Residency Program.
“I owe everything that I am today to that, because it’s the best training you can get at that age,” Restrepo said of the Bradenton Academy. “If I’d have stayed in Colombia, I probably wouldn’t have become a professional player.”
In college, Restrepo was the 2009 NCAA College Cup's Defensive Most Valuable Player and was named the MVP of the ACC Tournament. He was a key figure in Virginia capturing the national championship that year. Restrepo leaked just eight goals and had a goals-against average of 0.31 for the Cavaliers in 2009, and recorded 16 shutouts (including a school record 11 in a row, a record previously held by none other than Tony Meola).
As his college career was nearing an end, Restrepo trained with Deportivo La Coruña in Spain and Lokeren in Belgium but, after impressing, had difficulties with getting a visa and waited patiently for a MLS club to snap him up.
“I was waiting for the MLS to come up but for some reason they didn’t believe in me,” said Restrepo, who checks MLS scores and highlights online every weekend. “It was kind of a low punch that I didn’t get invited to the Combine, especially after the 2009 season [in which I was] national champion, MVP and I broke Tony Meola’s record.”
With a lack of firm interest from MLS clubs, Restrepo decided to go his own way. And when América de Cali, one of South America’s most storied clubs, came calling, he jumped at the chance to return to Colombia for a trial. This past January, he finally earned a contract and realized a personal dream of playing for a club based in his parents’ hometown.
Assuming he can overcome this week’s blip and regain the No. 1 spot for América, it could only be a matter of time before one of the three national teams for which he is eligible — the US, Venezuela and Colombia — comes knocking.
“With my heart, I still want to play for the US,” Restrepo said. “Coach [Jurgen] Klinsmann has been calling up young guys like [D.C. United ‘keeper] Bill Hamid, so I’m just going to keep working for the opportunity and see if the US calls first.”
Like many players who hold more than one passport, it’s not an easy situation for Restrepo, who is keeping his options open if the US don’t come calling.
“If not, obviously I want to play international soccer, he explained, “and if I get the chance to play in South American qualifying, then, of course, I’m going to go with that.”
A decision may come sooner than expected for Restrepo with Venezuela already circling.
“There is talk that Venezuela is looking at me and that the coach is going to come and watch me,” explained Restrepo. “Very soon a call-up might happen.”
The young goalkeeper also points out that the chance to play international soccer will help his stock rise and perhaps even open doors to a European club.
For now, though, Restrepo — who names Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller among his favorite ‘keepers of all time — needs to consolidate his spot at América.
“I knew I was capable of playing and being good,” he said, “and now, after the two games, I want to become the best [‘keeper in the Colombian league].”
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup