U.S. striker Sebastian Soto left home at 15 to pursue his soccer dream. Now he's ready to star at U-20 World Cup
In early 2018, Sebastian Soto traveled with Real Salt Lake's first team for preseason. Like every player on the trip, he was given a per diem (or daily allowance) envelope with his meal money for the trip, about $600. With Soto having subsisted on $12 a day on trips with RSL's academy, the amount was a shock.
"I said, 'Oh my god.' I went to my hotel room and poured it out on the bed," Soto recalled. "I told one of the staff, 'This is the most money I've ever held in my hand.'"
Given that the players were given most of their meals in the hotel, he wondered what to do with his newly acquired cash. Then it hit him. He told the same staffer, "I'm going to buy a car!"
Eighteen months on, Soto need not worry about his next paycheck or his form of transport given his rapid ascent. Earlier this year, after pouring in the goals for Hannover 96's Under-19 team, the forward made his Bundesliga debut at just 18 years old. With one year left on his current deal, he's in discussions with Hannover to sign an extended contract, though sources indicate that the likes of Borussia Dortmund -- eager to find another young American talent after the sale of Christian Pulisic to Chelsea -- are circling, just in case talks break down.
Most important of all, Soto and the rest of his teammates on the U.S. U20 national team are ready to begin their World Cup journey, opening the tournament on Friday against Ukraine at Stadion Miejski in the Polish city of Bielsko-Biala.
"With this U20 squad, it's really something special," Soto said by telephone. "[U.S. U20 manager Tab Ramos] can say something on the field and how he wants it, and everyone can do it. We want the ball and we want to pressure the ball. That suits my game. I love chasing after the ball, I love stealing the ball and keeping it. Tab is just like that. He's like a dog when we don't have [the ball]. My favorite thing he says is, 'We get it, let's go to the goal.' He doesn't like messing around. Let's score. That's right up my alley."
On a U.S. U20 squad with the likes of the New England Revolution's Justin Rennicks and especially Paris St. Germain's Tim Weah, Soto has competition. But though Rennicks and Weah can play out wide, Ramos sees Soto exclusively as a central striker.
"Soto has a knack in the box for being in the right place at the right time, and finishing his opportunities. He has good timing on his runs," Ramos said via telephone. "He's really surprised us in terms of his strength. He does a really good job of holding the ball up with a man on his back now, which was one of the things he was weaker at in the past. He's a more of a forward that gets passes into feet and you can play off of than one that's going to beat you with speed."
Spending the 2018-19 season with Hannover has provided Soto with some valuable experience. His 17 goals in 24 appearances with the U19s tied him for the third-most from open play in the north division of the A-Junioren Bundesliga.
Soto ended up making three senior appearances for Hannover, with his first-team debut coming against Wolfsburg back on April 6. Soto said he had "no clue whatsoever" that he was in contention to get called up for the match, as he hadn't trained with them that week. Soto's parents, Fabrizio and Monica, were in town to see him play with the U19s. They'd planned to take in the first-team game the following day before Soto got the call. The realization of a dream set his nerves on edge.
"For 24 hours, my heart was just racing, I couldn't breathe normally," he said.
As Soto was warming up in the second half, he could sense the atmosphere, as well as the fact that his parents were in the stadium somewhere. Then, around the 78th minute, the staff told him he was going in.
"It was the most nervous I've ever been. I was scared," Soto recalled. "I was thinking, 'I can't go on that field and screw up.' That's like the thought of anyone on their debut. And then it was really weird how it happened. I put on my jersey and my heart just slowed down, my breathing went normal, and when the coaches were telling me what I was going to do, I was like, 'OK, that's fine.'
"I blocked everything out. I couldn't really hear the atmosphere anymore; I was just focused. I stepped on the field and I was like, 'I've got to do what I know.'"
The appearance capped a journey that began in Carlsbad, California, with Soto's first exposure to the game coming as soon as he could walk.
Fabrizio, who was born in Chile, played at Chapman University in California, and Sebastian's uncle, Eddie Soto, is a former U.S. youth international and collegiate coach. And on every occasion when gifts would be received -- be it Christmas, birthdays, what have you -- Sebastian had a simple request: a ball.
"At one point we collected all the balls in the house and the backyard that were just everywhere, and I think we had 120," said Monica Soto. "I was a stay-at-home mom with him and 90 percent of the day, I swear, if he was in the house, we were playing. We would go to parks ... he just always wanted to be playing."
Being a parent requires coping with all manner of challenges but among the toughest is the gradual letting-go, that time when you allow your child to strike out on their own and become more independent. For the Sotos, that happened earlier than it does for most parents. When Sebastian was 15, he was playing for the San Diego Surf and was spotted by then-Real Salt Lake academy director, and former U.S. national team assistant, Martin Vasquez. Vasquez was impressed enough to offer Soto a spot in RSL's academy. The chance for Soto to further his development in a professional academy was enticing, but it meant swapping San Diego for the desert of Casa Grande, Arizona, a five-hour drive away. Fabrizio and Monica were reluctant, but Sebastian convinced them.
"Sebastian was dead set on going," Fabrizio recalled. "He said, 'I have to do this. I want to do this.' All we asked was that he keep his grades up. It was probably the best decision he ever made, but it was tough for us to let him go."
Off the field, Soto adapted quickly, but on the field for RSL's academy, he faced a new challenge. His 5-foot-6 frame at the time saw him play previously as a winger but Vasquez viewed him as a striker. "Soto was smart, getting in good areas around the box, attacking open spaces, [making] runs without the ball that make a lot of sense," Vasquez said.
Under Vasquez's tutelage, Soto spent the next two years working on his hold-up play and ability to link with teammates. It helped that Soto hit a growth spurt that eventually saw him reach 6 feet tall and allowed him to better cope with the physical challenges that came his way. After that, the goals came in bunches: He scored 43 goals in 25 matches during the 2017-18 U.S. Soccer Development Academy season.
That success led to another big decision. Soto could have gone the college route: A spot on the team at Cal-Berkeley was his if he wanted it. Instead, he opted to fulfill his dream and head to Germany with Hannover. This time it wasn't just Fabrizio and Monica letting go, but Vasquez and RSL, too.
"For us it hurts because I think he's going to turn into a very good forward and a very good player," Vasquez said. "But at the same time we're happy for him. They come into the academy with goals, with dreams, and they pursue the dreams. The extra work that Sebastian did -- the adjustment, that consistency and hunger that he showed -- took him there."
An overseas move has upended the careers of quite a few American players. The culture shock and the level of competition can become too much, leading many to head home. But Soto once again showed an ability to adapt. After all, he had done it before.
"The adaptation stuff, I expected to be a lot harder," Soto said. "I did leave [home] when I was 15, so I knew what that felt like. It's obviously a different country, language, culture, and that's the tough part. But RSL, they really helped me, and when I got to Germany I was, 'Oh, it's not really a big deal.' The language is a shock. German is hard. When I look back, I thought there was no chance I learn this language. But now it's been eight months and I understand about 90 percent of it. I'm doing really well."
Monica Soto added, "He does so well in these different environments because he's so focused. Things that are difficult, he doesn't see them as difficult. They're another little step to take."
Soto is now poised to become the latest American success story in Germany, though next year he'll play in the 2. Bundesliga following Hannover's relegation. But there is another big decision looming. With Fabrizio born in Chile, and Monica's Mexican heritage, Sebastian is eligible to represent three countries. In the case of players with multiple passports, the desire of the family can have an enormous influence, but Fabrizio and Monica are determined to stay out of the way. "It's 100 percent Sebastian's decision," Fabrizio said.
Yet the magnitude of the choice hit home after Sebastian posted on Instagram following his Bundesliga debut. "It was like 2,000 comments on that post, and it was fans of Chile and Mexico," he said. "It was crazy."
When asked if the Chilean or Mexican federations have reached out to him, Soto said those topics are handled by his agent. But the reality is he is biding his time, even as he says "100 percent of my focus" is on the U20 World Cup. "I haven't been put in a position yet to where I have to make a decision with the senior national team," he said. "That's kind of where we're at, that I haven't had to make a decision yet."
So far, he's made the right one every time.