ORLANDO, Fla. – In El Salvador, soccer isn’t so much the main sporting passion as the main passion in life. This is, after all, a country that went to war (briefly) with Honduras in the wake of a controversial World Cup qualifier in 1969.
Born in Quezaltepeque, Darwin Ceren seemed destined for a soccer career. His father played professionally in Division Two; both his sisters play for the El Salvador women’s team; and Darwin and his brother Oscar grew up together in their local academy and played for city team Juventud Independiente.
But it took a strange turn of events to get him into the professional ranks and, ultimately, to Florida, where he’s become part of the foundation of Orlando City SC, the 2015 Latino del Año winner and Players’ Player of the Year.
But, before he could get there, a family crisis almost derailed his future. Darwin had just started university, the oldest of the four Ceren children, when he received bad news.
“My dad always worked, and, when I started university, everything was good,” he recalls. “It was my first year and, out of nothing, my dad lost his job. It was impossible for him to pay for university and, with two sisters and my brother, the family had to have some income. So I started work. It was basically my responsibility to help the family.”
Instead of furthering his education and refining his soccer skills, Ceren threw himself into quality control for a company manufacturing blocks and bricks for housing construction. It could have been a crippling blow, but there was a silver lining – his boss was a soccer fan.
“I was at work when I saw there was a tryout for the Juventud team,” he explains. “So I talked with the boss and told him it was my dream to play professional soccer. I had to ask for time off. He just said, ‘If you play, that’s OK! Go for the tryouts.’ Now I had a chance again.”
But Ceren still had to make an impact among dozens of eager young hopefuls. It was daunting prospect.
“The first day I got to training, there were maybe 80 players. It was crazy,” he admits. “And every day it was 10 players less. When it came down to the final day, the seventh name called [to stay] was me. I just said, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt so blessed. Every week after that was work and then training; work and training. I was 19.”
Juventud was still only a second-division team, but the arrival of Darwin in 2009 and younger brother Oscar helped fuel a breakthrough to the Primera Division two years later.
“It was the final game of the 2011 season,” Darwin remembers. “I scored around the 55th minute and then my brother scored in the very last minute. We won 3-2 and we got to play in the top league.”
The Ceren boys continued to impress and Juventud quickly became a force, reaching the playoff semifinals against traditional powerhouse FAS of Santa Ana. Adrian Heath, then head coach of the USL side in Orlando was in attendance for the second leg – “I was actually there to scout two players from FAS,” Heath admits now – but it wasn’t the more celebrated duo that caught his eye.
“It was after the game and my agent told me, ‘There is an American coach who said he needs No. 17 in his team’,” Darwin says. “My number was 17, of course, so suddenly I was talking with Adrian. He told me the team was USL now but the next year it is MLS. Do I want to come? He guaranteed me a two-year contract. I said, ‘OK, I can go. But my family, too?’ Yes, they said. It was all good.”
It was the offer to bring his family along that clinched the deal for Ceren. With a wife and two children filling out his life, the idea of moving away from them – even for a more money and a future in the United State – did not appeal to him.
“In such a big country, it was already a big move. So when they said, ‘Yes, bring your wife and kids,’ now it was all good,” Ceren says. “It was good for my family, good school for my kids, everything was right.”
There were still challenges for a 24-year-old living outside his native country for the first time.
Happily for Darwin – and Orlando – Mexican goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo had been with the franchise since its Austin days, and knew exactly how to look after the new recruit. The Orlando fan favorite had gone through his own adjustment period.
“I know what it’s like to come to a new country where you don’t know anyone or speak the language,” Gallardo says. “So I tried to help Darwin as much as I could to adapt to his new home and feel happy, which is the key to playing your best soccer. Anyone would do the same. I’m very happy to see all his success. He is a great player and a good friend.”
Ceren still had to battle to adjust to USL, as well as a different coaching approach under Heath. Fellow midfielder Anthony Pulis – now head coach of Orlando City B – has witnessed the Salvadoran’s evolution first hand.
“When Darwin first came in, he was really raw,” Pulis says. “You could see he was athletic and had lots of technical ability, but tactically he was a little unaware and defensively he could be naïve, probably because he just hadn’t had the same level of coaching. But, as the year went on and he worked really hard with the team, he simply got better and better.
“He has now grown into one of the best midfielders in the league. The only surprise for me is how quickly he has adapted to MLS, and I think he is going to go on and have a really good career for many years to come.”
Ceren signed a four-year contract extension at the beginning of 2016 – hot on the heels of his hugely successful debut season in MLS – and also earned captaincy honors, taking the armband from Kaká when the great Brazilian was sidelined by injury early this season.
“Being captain is motivation, because Kaká is the man for this team,” Ceren says. “When he can’t play and the coach says ‘Darwin is captain,’ that is a big responsibility because you know Kaká is the star.”
In El Salvador, however, it’s Ceren who’s the star. He’s the captain of Los Cuscatlecos and has a real shot at become the most-capped player in the country’s history. Now firmly established as City’s midfield dynamo, Ceren knows he has come a long way from Quezaltepeque, and a youthful dream of following in family footsteps.
“I loved the fact my dad played soccer, and, when I saw him, I thought, ‘One day, I will play the same as him.’” Ceren says. “When you are a kid, you don’t know where dreams will take you. It is amazing, no?”