Benefield: Windsor soccer star’s pro dreams coming true (w/video)

Etiandro Tavares does one-legged hops for conditioning at the SRJC stadium in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Tavares will be joining the Real Salt Lake Monarchs professional soccer team. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Etiandro Tavares does one-legged hops for conditioning at the SRJC stadium in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Tavares will be joining the Real Salt Lake Monarchs professional soccer team. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It was his feet. Always about his feet.

“When a towel would drop on the floor, he would want to pick it up with his feet,” Maria Augusta recalled of her older son Etiandro “Eti” Tavares running around as a boy in their former home in Guinea-Bissau. “I would get so mad but I didn’t know that was his talent.”

His talent, that stuff he can do with his feet, would not be an unknown for long.

The boy who would play soccer in the street with balls made from plastic bags, the boy whose teams would enter tournaments in which the prize was a booty of cashews, the boy who would come home with half a load of firewood or nary a fish on the line because he ditched his familial duties and got caught up in a game of street soccer — that boy is on the cusp of going pro.

“He’s a player that we like, we want, but we just haven’t made it official,” said Freddy Suarez, head coach of the Real Monarchs.

Real Monarchs are set to play their inaugural season in the USL Pro, an affiliation that makes them essentially a second team to the MLS squad Real Salt Lake.

An announcement on Tavares’ place with the team is imminent.

Tavares, 21, is no fringe player. This isn’t the case of a guy dancing around the edges of the pro game and calling it the real deal. He was one of just three so-called second team candidates invited to train last month with the Real Salt Lake squad. Better than that? The three newbies beat a three-man team that included U.S. men’s national team standout Kyle Beckerman in a game of soccer tennis that is currently the featured video on the team’s website.

“It was exciting, it was intimidating,” Tavares said of the experience. “I felt like I was accomplishing something just getting out there with world-class players like Beckerman. I was just watching him at World Cup.”

“It went from TV to in-person,” he said. “It was shocking.”

Those who know Tavares best say his rise into the soccer stratosphere is nearly mind-boggling. Not because they don’t believe in his gifts or in his grit. What is shocking, or at the very least awe-inducing, is Tavares’ personal journey to get there.

Born in Guinea-Bissau, Tavares was 7, and his younger brother, Windsor High football kicker Gedi Tavares 5, when their mother left for the United States to try to establish a new life for herself and her sons. It would be four years before they saw her again.

“I was sad, mad, frustrated,” he said. “She would call a lot, almost every weekend, and she would put us on the phone.”

Tavares and his brother lived with an uncle and three aunts at a time the tiny west African nation was in the middle of a violent civil war. The family moved often, but always, Tavares found a way to play soccer. He also earned a reputation as a bit of a chore-evader.

“My work was to collect wood for the fire, but sometimes I’d ditch that and go play,” he said.

When he was 11, he got the call he’d been waiting for: His mom sent for him to come to Santa Rosa. The family eventually moved to Windsor, but soccer was the constant.

The difference between life in Guinea-Bissau and Sonoma County was beyond dramatic. Tavares calls those early days here “magic.”

Tavares remembers looking out a second-story window and watching from above as a kid floated down the sidewalk. Mesmerized, he ran down to the street and saw that the boy was on a scooter — something Tavares had never seen. For weeks, the neighbor boy lent the scooter to Tavares, who very nearly rode the wheels off the thing.

Not speaking a word of English, Tavares’ connection to other kids in his new home was soccer. He spoke only Portuguese, which was close enough to Spanish to get by with Latino kids on the field or at school.

Kelcey Chaidez was the U-13 United coach when the young Tavares just showed up at tryouts. His gifts were obvious, Chaidez said.

“Most coaches dream about a player like him turning up at your doorstep,” he said. The language barrier, in the beginning, was borderline comical.

“We got a rough translation: ‘Hey, you made the team. We want you to play,’” he recalls saying. Tavares was over the moon.

Tavares’ mom was without a car, so Chaidez shepherded the boy to practice as well as to games. Over time, Tavares began telling Chaidez about growing up playing for prizes of cashews, or skipping out on chores to get a game in.

“He would have to go to the river to catch fish for lunch and dinner but sometimes he would skip it to go play, so he would fib it so he could go play and say he didn’t catch anything,” he said.

Tavares said he got a reputation for being lazy because he’d skip chores. Area coaches describe him as anything but. And Tavares always sought out higher levels of competition to raise his game.

“When you are a top youth player and you are playing against your peers, you can cruise and you can still be the best,” said Ben Ziemer, who coached Tavares on the Sonoma County Sol of the National Premiere Soccer League when he was just a teen. “Playing with the Sol, if he wasn’t sharp, he had 25-, 30-year-olds saying so. He was open to it.”

Polite and charming off the pitch, Tavares is not timid on the field.

When the Sol had a scrimmage against the MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes, Tavares, per usual, was fearless.
Ziemer recalled a moment in particular in which Tavares put a move on and danced over the ball in such a way the seasoned pro nearly had to pull up his socks.

“He almost fell to the ground,” Ziemer said of the professional defender.

“The Earthquakes coach turned to me, he’s sitting on an ice chest, and he just looked at me,” Ziemer recalled. “I said, ‘And he’s only 17.’”

Halfway through his junior year at Windsor High, Tavares was recommended for a place at Real Salt Lake’s youth academy in Casa Grande, Ariz. His Windsor community, his soccer community, rallied around the family, raising thousands of dollars to send Tavares to Arizona, where he attended public high school but trained daily within the Real Salt Lake system.

Tavares said he weathered the transition to living apart from family better than others simply because he’d endured that separation before when his mom left Guinea-Bissau for the United States.

“It kind of tests you mentally, being so far away like that,” he said.

After a rough start which saw Tavares spend some quality time on the bench, he started to shine. He garnered scholarship offers from Division I schools but his grades weren’t strong enough. So he coached and trained at the soccer academy while earning his associate degree in business at Western Arizona College and playing for that team. After two years, Cal State Northridge was still interested and offered him a scholarship for this fall.

But that’s when the Monarchs came calling, too.

It’s hard to turn your back on a dream. And Tavares wants to play professionally. A newly-minted U.S. citizen, he also wants to suit up for the national team.

Tavares picked the pros.

After a solid tryout with the Monarchs, Tavares was one of just three potential Monarchs players to get invited to train this month with the first team, Real Salt Lake.

“To me, he’s in a really good position,” said Gabe Rood, manager of the western region of U.S. Club Soccer and mentor and early advocate for Tavares.

Tavares is expected to report to Salt Lake City Feb. 20.

And despite his incredible journey, his improbable climb up the soccer ranks, Tavares insists he is not finished.

“I’m proud of myself but this isn’t where I want to be,” he said after a workout at Santa Rosa JC this week. “I’m just using this as a stepping stone.”

Big talk from a young guy.

But for those who know Tavares, who have marveled at his play and seen him work, the talk fits the walk.
“Ultimately, that is the difference,” Chaidez said. “Talent can be wasted by a player that takes it for granted. He has tremendous discipline, always honing his craft. Those opportunities he’s getting now? They come from that sacrifice.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield