An FC Tucson standout for many years, Ricardo Velazco made history when he signed a professional contract with Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake.
The 23-year-old forward became the first player to take the path from the Real Salt Lake Academy to the Real Monarchs to the MLS team when he signed for the club on Sept. 6. Velazco has burst onto the scene in 2016, scoring eight goals and providing six assists in 27 games for the Monarchs in the United Soccer League.
“He has that ‘it’ factor about him, where he’s capable of excellence,” RSL Head Coach Jeff Cassar said. “We’ve seen that over the course of the Monarchs season, not just solid play but that brilliance – the goals that he’s scored, and quite a few of them have been world-class. That’s what we wanted to add to our team.”
However, those who have been following Velazco for longer than the 2016 USL season have seen him shine at all levels of the game, including in the PDL.
Velazco’s path to the PDL began while he was still a member of the RSL Academy. The forward scrimmaged against FC Tucson and impressed Head Coach Rick Shantz. Velazco joined the PDL club – only an hour away from Velazco’s hometown of Casa Grande, Arziona – midseason in 2012, and helped Tucson during its PDL Playoffs run.
After a season at Cal-State San Bernardino, Velazco decided to join Louisville, where he scored 13 goals and provided 14 assists in two years. While excelling with the Cardinals, the forward began receiving more attention and more calls about opportunities to play for different PDL teams across North America. Yet, Velazco only had one objective in mind heading into the 2014 PDL season: give back to the club that gave him his first opportunity.
“I had loyalty and love to FC Tucson because they were there before everything,” Velazco told USLPDL.com. “I was one of the leaders and was a captain [in 2014]. That season, we did very well; we got to the finals in the conference.”
Velazco recorded seven goals and four assists in 14 games during the 2014 PDL regular season, earning PDL All-Western Conference Team honors and PDL Young Player of the Year honors. Following his exceptional year in Tucson, the forward helped Louisville reach the third round of the NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship. He then signed for the Monarchs ahead of the 2015 USL regular season.
“One of the better decisions I made was to go play at FC Tucson to prepare me professionally because the organization is run like a pro team,” Velazco said. “They’re very strict about time and your diet and what you are doing before and after training, so I was very prepared on that sense.
“It helped me grow as a player and as a person, in general. I had to learn how to cook and clean. I didn’t have my mom to cook or clean, so it really helped me in that sense.”
Despite leading the Monarchs in assists with four, the Tucson talent was not happy with his performance in his first professional season.
“To be fair, my first year with the Monarchs was probably one of my worst years in soccer stat-wise,” Velazco said. “I had two goals, I had a goal in the [U.S. Lamar Hunt] Open Cup and a few assists here and there, but it wasn’t a good stat year. I was playing, started every game, I just didn’t have numbers to jump up or catch eyes. So I knew this year I had to produce more, I had to create goals, score, assist – and that would just help the team succeed.”
Velazco met those goals in the 2016 USL season, recording eight goals and six assists – both team-highs. While the Monarchs did not reach the USL Playoffs, his focus now shifts to making a name for himself in MLS. RSL Head Coach Cassar believes Velazco’s addition adds more depth to the forward position heading into the final stretch of the MLS regular season and MLS Playoffs, and he looks forward to seeing what Velazco can offer to the club.
“My goal is to be a player for Real Salt Lake, a starter for Real Salt Lake, be a player that contributes to their success and get taken in as a player who can change a game, who can help the team win and add points to the table for us.
“If they need me to play outside-mid, center-mid, center forward, outside back, wherever they need me to play to contribute to the team, that’s my main goal right now.”