RailHawks' midfielder beat the odds to make it to America

Colombian midfielder beat the odds to make it to America

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2012 

— Bréiner Ortiz walks out of his room holding a carry-on suitcase and a pair of Adidas soccer cleats. Someday, he’ll be able to say that’s all he brought with him to America. At the moment, it’s still pretty much all he has.

He showed up in Raleigh one frigid February day with only what he could carry, days removed from leaving Colombia for the first time. Ortiz, 22, had never left home before. He was in a foreign country, speaking no English, very much alone.

“Cuando llegué aquí, el frío me estaba matando,” Ortiz says. When I got here, the cold was killing me.

Now, in the more familiar heat of the summer, Ortiz is playing an important role in the center of the Carolina RailHawks’ midfield. He lives with teammates Amir Lowery, one of three RailHawks players who speaks Spanish, and Brian Ackley, one of many who do not.

They all call him “Brecka,” a nickname, at his insistence, because no one on the team can roll the ‘R’ at the start of Bréiner to his satisfaction.

He is becoming fluent in the North American style of soccer – more physical and faster-paced than it is in Colombia – and scored his first goal with the RailHawks in Saturday’s 2-0 win over FC Edmonton. His English isn’t coming along quite as quickly.

“It’s good. I need,” Ortiz says, smiling as he riffs quickly through the rest of his English. “Friends. Amir, Ackley, good friends. Saturday. Winner.”

This may just be the beginning. The average NASL player makes $2,250 a month, plus housing. The average MLS player makes that much in a week. The average English Premier League player makes twice that much in a day.

If the career goal of every soccer player is to move up the pyramid, to bigger clubs in far-away places, to climb that salary ladder, Ortiz is living at the intersection of the soccer dream and the American dream. His story is one of opportunity, of beating odds so steep they seem insurmountable in retrospect.

He grew up in Calí, the middle of five children, playing soccer from a young age. He was playing for a Colombian club, content to remain there, when he was invited to a tryout camp attended by Fort Lauderdale Strikers coach Daryl Shore and Luis Muzzi, a representative of Traffic Sports, which owns the Strikers and RailHawks.

When it was over, they gathered all 150 players together. Only three had been chosen to attend the NASL combine in February, but they thanked all of them for coming. Ortiz grabbed his suitcase and went to hail a taxi.

“Y viene alguna gente, y me llama ’No, Ortiz, Venga!’ ” Ortiz says. “Usted ha sido escogido entre los tres jugadores!” Along came a bunch of people and they were yelling “No, Ortiz, come here.” You’ve been chosen as one of the three players.

Ortiz hopped on a plane and hasn’t been back since.

There were 71 players on display at February’s NASL combine, from 15 countries. A mere nine landed with NASL teams. Ortiz was the only player the RailHawks signed from the combine, stealing him out from under the Strikers, who brought him there intending to sign him.

“As much as we would have liked to have him in our group, Carolina is a good fit for him,” Shore said. “It’s great to be able to help a young player fulfill his dreams, coming to States getting his career started. It stings a little bit, but you like to see the fact the kid landed on his feet doing well.”

Even in Carolina, he has turned a single opportunity into success: Ortiz appeared in only two of the RailHawks’ first eight games. He played a total of 30 minutes. The RailHawks were 0-4-4.

Since he entered the starting lineup, for good, the RailHawks are 6-1-1 in NASL and U.S. Open Cup games. There’s more to the RailHawks’ turnaround than Ortiz, but the team’s progress has mirrored his personal development.

“I think he’s starting to break out of his shell a little bit, now that he’s playing,” Ackley said. “At the beginning of the season, he wasn’t playing, I think he was a little bit frustrated, kind of missed home. It’s pretty cool to watch him grow. He’s getting acclimated, he’s joking around with the guys. It’s fun to watch.”

When Ignacio van Gelderen, the team’s Spanish-speaking PR guy, picked him up at the airport, he said, “They lost your luggage!” Nope, Ortiz said, this was all he had – a small suitcase full of short-sleeved shirts and warm-weather clothes.

The Green Bay Packers jacket he wore was a gift from the Colombian scout who originally invited Ortiz to the showcase there. So was the stocking cap on his head.

The RailHawks took up a collection around the office and among the players to gather some warm clothes for Ortiz. Lowery had already outfitted the apartment with pots and pans and the usual dorm-quality furniture, and van Gelderen gave Ortiz all the spare sheets and towels from his own house.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the RailHawks set up Ortiz with an unlimited international calling plan so he could stay in touch with his family back in Calí – and he does, spending an average of two hours a day on the phone, Ortiz conservatively estimates.

Life is different here, he tells his parents and his siblings: When he leaves the house there are no people in the streets.

Ortiz had never cooked or cleaned, never done his own laundry. The RailHawks put him with Lowery, who returned to the team this summer after a year in Montreal, only partly for linguistic reasons. They also expected Lowery to mentor Ortiz in how to be as a professional: how to eat right, work out and live independently as an adult.

“I don’t think I needed this much hands-on help from an older teammate, but I wish that coming out of college at 21, playing professionally, I had an older guy to show me right and wrong, how to be a professional,” said Lowery, who went to Wake Forest. “It’s something that takes practice, I think. For sure.”

That isn’t the only way Lowery is guiding Ortiz through his first season in North America. Lowery, who plays behind Ortiz and Austin Da Luz as a defensive midfielder, can often be seen directing Ortiz into position.

Ortiz plays a critical role in the center of the field, covering for Da Luz as well as Brian Shriver and Cory Elenio on the right flank as they make attacking forays, when he’s not making attacking runs of his own.

Ortiz can use his mobility to cover all that ground, his anticipation to intercept passes and his growing strength to shoulder opposing players off the ball. He sees himself, as most young players do, as a creative force, but his willingness to become a two-way player has been a critical component of the RailHawks’ turnaround.

At this moment, his future appears limitless.

The RailHawks have the option to extend his contract for two more years; who knows what he might be worth to a European or South American team if he continues to develop like this?

“The guy’s certainly got talent, he’s still relatively young and he’s a fresh face, meaning there can’t be anybody in the United States prior to, say, March, that had ever seen him play,” RailHawks president Curt Johnson said.

“It’s intriguing for a lot of different reasons. You can almost see him get better every game.”

When the RailHawks upset defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup and came within seconds of taking Chivas USA to overtime, Ortiz held his own in the center of the field, physically and technically, against legitimate MLS midfielders, none of whom had ever heard of him.

That includes Colombian superstar Juan Pablo Angel, who came on as a late substitute for Chivas and slotted home the winning penalty kick in stoppage time. Angel, who left Colombia at 22 to make big money in Argentina, England and finally MLS, remains a hero in his homeland.

“Y teniéndolo ya en frente, es algo emocionante,” Ortiz said. It was something very emotional to have him in front of me.

After the match, Ortiz introduced himself to Angel, who gave Ortiz his shorts as a gift – and his phone number, asking him to stay in touch. Angel’s Chivas shorts now hang on the wall of Ortiz’s bedroom, as much a statement about where he is going as where he has been.

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, 919-829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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