GUADALAJARA, Mexico – During his junior year at College of the Holy Cross just outside Boston, Alejandro Meleán made a risky decision: He wasn't going to wait around for the right opportunity to come his way. He was going to hunt one down on his own.
“I told my dad, ‘After college, I’m going to take a year off to see if a professional soccer career works out,’” the Miami native recounted to MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday.
Meleán stayed true to his word and left for his parents’ native Bolivia soon after graduating in 2009, despite having an offer on the table from his hometown team, second-division Miami FC (now Fort Lauderdale Strikers).
“I really wanted to start my career at [the] first-division level, because I didn’t want to stay stuck in [the] second division,” Meleán, now 24, explained, adding that MLS teams weren’t even extending him any offers to try out.
He secured trials and training stints with a couple of big clubs in Bolivia, such as Blooming and Oriente Petrolero, before signing a one-year deal in January 2010 to play at one of the country’s smallest first-division clubs, La Paz FC.
One successful season later, Oriente Petrolero came calling again, offering him a six-month deal with the option to renew depending on his performances – and offering him the opportunity to play in South America's biggest club competition.
“Those six months were amazing for me,” enthused Meleán. “I got to play all six games in the Copa Libertadores.”
The versatile Meleán, who has played right midfielder, center back and attacking midfield, cites one game during the six months as changing his career from an up-and-coming, one-to-watch player in the Bolivian league to one who is now on the verge of debuting for the Bolivian national team.
“The coach tried me out as a defensive midfielder,” he said. “It was a home game, we won 6-0 and I was one of the best players on the field. That helped me get a lot of attention.”
An improved contract followed for the player known by his Oriente Petrolero peers alternately as “El Gringo” or “the psychologist,” because of his degree, which is a source of amusement for those who play alongside him.
“I get a lot of attention for having a different background, even though I have Bolivian nationality,” Meleán reported.
Firmly established in Bolivia, with 81 top-flight appearances to his name, Meleán has been on the edge of his ancestral country’s national team for a while. He was called into the squad for World Cup qualifying matches against Argentina and Venezuela last November, but didn’t enter the field, meaning he is technically still available for the United States.
“It’s difficult,” admitted Meleán, who previously stated he would go with whichever of the two national teams called him first. “Both countries have given me so much.”
The call-up to the squad is an even bigger achievement considering Meleán turned pro at age 22 which, in Latin America, is considered old to be starting out a pro career.
“It was very difficult to get started, because most players start before they are 20,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve got past that, because in one year of my career, I’ve been called to the national team. I was really happy with that.”
Would he have preferred to skip college and join the youth system of a major club if he could do it all over again?
“I don’t regret anything, because it’s worked out,” explained Meleán. “Having a great education was very important to me and my family.”
Despite Bolivia looking like Meleán’s destiny in terms of international football, North American fans may still get to see some more of the Floridian, at least if the next stage of his career goes as much to plan as the last part.
“I have a little over a year left in my contract and I’m always open to the possibility of going back to the States or to Europe, which would be a dream come true,” he said.
But Meleán’s ultimate dream depends on other factors coming together, most notably South Florida getting an MLS team.
“The ideal thing for me would be for Miami to have an MLS team and I’d be playing in it,” he admitted. “I’ve always seen myself living in Miami, that’s home to me.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. E-mail him at email@example.com.