Sunday, July 14, 2024
Sunday, July 14, 2024

Mikey Maldonado: Family. Dedication. Home.

Photo: Forward Madison FC

Over the course of my 43 years on this rock, I’ve been blessed to have taken on numerous trials and tribulations. Throughout this journey, one of the greatest discoveries I’ve made is that even though we strive for most of our lives to be undefined and free, there are still tenets that we all keep coming back to that help define who we are. Concepts and ideals like honesty, togetherness, or community, for instance. It is these tenets that we often hold on to in our most trying moments and it is these tenets that help paint our legacies for the generations behind us. In the case of FMFC’s newly signed defender, Mikey Maldonado, he proved to be no different, as three themes kept coming up in my interview with him, which not only serve to help paint a picture of him on the pitch, but off of it, as well:

Family. Dedication. Home.

Born and raised in San Antonio, the 23-year-old Texan comes from a family with deep roots in the home of the Alamo. Spend five minutes with Maldonado, and those roots come to the forefront. “I’ve always been the type of player where I’ve got to play and represent the name on my back, as well as the crest on the front,” said Maldonado. The 2nd son of 2nd-generation San Antonio parents, he grew up in the same house until he was 14 years old (his parents are now still in the house they moved into) and later graduated from one of the larger high schools in Texas, Samuel Clemens; a massive 6A school, boasting over 2600 students. Like many young people growing up, Maldonado found himself in love with sports, including sharing his family’s love for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. “We had all the DVDs,” Maldonado fondly recalled. “ALL of them. I loved basketball…still do.” With the Spurs winning five NBA Championships in a span of 15 years, it’s easy to understand the sentiment, but despite their success on the hardwood, Maldonado’s love was being on the pitch. 

Despite his passion for the beautiful game, Maldonado didn’t take a route normally carved out for those seeking soccer as a profession. While many young prodigies find themselves bandying about from elite academy to academy, trying to maximize opportunities to face the best competition and get seen by the right people, Maldonado chose a more humble route. “I grew up playing on the same small club with the same group of guys,” he said. “My friends, you know? I never played academy or anything like that.” Following a successful career at Sam Clemens, Maldonado took his talents to the midwest, heading off to St. Louis to play soccer collegiately for the Bilikins at Saint Louis University. According to Maldonado, “That was a HUGE change for me…big change. Inner city. On my own. But, overall, I liked it.” Perhaps, according to Maldonado, he liked it a bit too much, as his time at SLU only lasted one year. “I didn’t focus on grades much,” Maldonado recounted, “I was just soccer, soccer, soccer.” 

While originally thinking that he would go back to San Antonio and continue his studies closer to home, this bump in the road proved to be a seminal moment in the young footballer’s life, as it provided the catalyst for Maldonado to make the decision to turn professional. “I had friends in the pros and I wanted that,” Maldonado said. “To make that happen, I went to A LOT of tryouts.” Uhh…yeah. Maldonado had multiple tryouts with USL Championship squads such as hometown San Antonio FC (three), the Austin Bold (twice), and Rio Grande Valley. Getting close but, ultimately, not getting chosen began to wear on the young Maldonado. However, his determination, fortitude, and even his family refused to allow him to give up. In early 2021, seeing that FC Dallas was having tryouts for their USL1 outfit, North Texas SC, Maldonado figured a change of scenery might help his case. “Everyone around here kind of knew who I was,” he said, “So, I thought I’d switch it up a little bit and head somewhere where they don’t know me…a fresh start.”

This fresh start would not come easily, however, as FC Dallas possesses one of the best academy systems in North America. Players like Ricardo Pepi, Kellyn Acosta, Reggie Cannon, and Jesus Ferreria (just to name a few) are some of the high-level talents FCD has produced on the international stage, but on top of that, they also boast one of the more talented developmental squads here in the States, as well: North Texas SC. Successful since the USL1’s inception, even though they’re now part of MLS Next, NTSC spent three seasons in USL1, where they won the league in 2019 (including beating FMFC in the semifinal). Put simply, if you’re a youth player in the FCD system, it’s a good chance you’re going places. Despite this pedigree and daunting task ahead of him, Maldonado remained steadfast and dedicated to the dream of being a professional. “I knew I could do it. I had been getting asked to do training sessions with some REALLY talented players and was holding my own. So, it was just a matter of putting all the right pieces together at the right time.” Before those pieces could even be available to put down, however, Maldonado’s family was once again right by his side, with his brother and mother helping pay for the cost of the tryout. Their belief in Mikey paid off as not only would Maldonado make the squad, but would go on to make 26 appearances for NTSC during the 2021 season, including a late-season visit to Breese Stevens here in Madison. “We could not hear each other on the field. AT ALL,” recalled Maldonado, “That reminded me of back home in San Antonio.” That feeling of home, as we’ll discuss later, is an imperative for Maldonado, so when he found himself out of contract with NTSC, the young man from the southwest decided to branch out again and take his talents to the Frozen North…and damn, are we glad he did. 

Arriving in Madison as a trialist, Maldonado found himself feeling at home right away. “The coaches here are very open but pushed me to my limit. That’s what I want,” he said, “Everyone talking and sharing the space.” Signed to the squad before their fourth preseason match against Chicago Fire 2, to say he announced his arrival with a bang is vast understatement. Slotted in his usual left back spot, Maldonado was able to advance the attack from the backline all match and ultimately, found himself in the position to put away a few opportunities…which he did. 1 match, 2 goals. Quite the start. 

When I asked him if that was his approach going into the match, Maldonado remained humble. “Those were team goals,” he stated, “Yeah, I was the one who finished them, but they were created and came about as a unit.” This team-first, one unit, mentality is exactly what new FMFC head coach/technical director, Matt Glaeser, has said he’s looking for in players and his squad and that is evidenced by the fact Maldonado has started the two league matchups for the ‘Gos, putting in a solid 90 minute shift in each match. But aside from the physical side of the game, such as throwing his body around, tossing caution to the wind in order to win individual battles, Maldonado has also already shown his acute understanding of the mental portion of the game by showing a coolness and composure on the ball indicative of a player that understands his role and possesses a confidence in who he is as a player. “You want to be able to adapt on the fly,” Maldonado said, “That comes about through your habits, your consistency, and your composure. Both on the field and off.” That composure was put to the test in last Saturday’s night against Union Omaha, when in the 72nd minute, Maldonado was sliding in for a ball and got cleated (which wasn’t called, by the way), leaving a puncture wound on his right forearm which he simply just wrapped up in vet tape and kept on playing.

Studs up, apparently

However, it was during this post-game chat with Maldonado that I started to become cognizant of why Glaeser and his staff have entrusted Maldonado with his role so early into his FMFC career. It would have been completely understandable that after a hard fought match (one that many felt we should have and could have won) and with a fresh puncture wound, Maldonado would have been reticent to talk to me and would have just wanted to go grab some treatment, a shower, and a meal. But, instead, as I approached him, there he was with an affable smile, almost excited to show off his new battle wound saying to me with a laugh, “I got cleated, bro!” As we continued our chat and Maldonado relayed how he was joking with people by the corner flag, asking if he could get some water, I remembered that during our initial chat, Maldonado made a point of telling me how approachable he is off the pitch. “I enjoy talking to the fans…on or off the pitch,” Maldonado relayed, “I’ll get the ball and be like, ‘Hey, how you doing? What beer are you drinking?’ Just have fun with it. If people see me on the street, they can come up and say hello, too. I enjoy all of that.” To say this attitude will fit in well and resonate with FMFC faithful is a given. However, it is this congenial approach, both on and off the pitch, that has helped Maldonado adjust to his new surroundings and has allowed him to experience a feeling that all of us search for: HOME.

When I asked him how he was settling into Madison, Maldonado had a smile etched across his face when he stated, “Still cold…but I’m loving it. Just a real homey vibe…just a great feeling to be here.” To hear that from a young man who has spent the vast majority of his life in Texas not only warmed my soul, but it also helped me to understand more of who Maldonado is. It is evidentiary of a young man that has begun to actualize not only who he is and what his role not only on this club is, but in life in and of itself. Speaking of his role as a professional, Maldonado’s tight knit, family-oriented roots become apparent:

“We have youth fans. They look up to us. We want to be a good example for not just them, but the community, as a whole. Showing them we’re not just players that go out there to make money. We’re all human beings. I have a team of youngsters that I coach back home, I feel like a role model to them, they call me everyday and send me pictures of their championships they win.”

– Mikey Maldonado
Mikey and Grant

While many would be taken aback by such a heartfelt, compassionate take on his role as professional by a man of 23 years, all I had to do was remember what makes Maldonado who he is and, more importantly, who he wants to be. When I asked him what his long term goals were as a professional footballer, Maldonado barely missed a beat. “Obviously, I want to be financially set for myself, but, more importantly, I want to do something for my parents who did so much for me growing up. They took me everywhere…day or night. So, when this is all over, I want them to be able to just relax and do their thing.” Again, a statement that echoes the three tenets which ground Maldonado and help form his identity: Family. Dedication. Home. 

And while Maldonado is making his home in Madison this season (and hopefully beyond), he always will remain rooted in San Antonio. With tonight’s matchup being in Tucson, I asked if his family would get the chance to be in attendance. While Maldonado said they’re not making the trip, I could almost hear the elation through his text when he relayed that he will, however, get to make it home to San Antonio and see them for what will likely be a beautiful reunion over the Easter holiday. So, while I’ll be cheering like mad with all of you for the ‘Gos to head to the desert and grab three points, by getting the chance to get to know Maldonado and him allowing me to see a little of what makes him tick, I can take solace in knowing that not only is FMFC doing what they need to grab points and win a championship on the pitch, but off of it as well. 

“I’ll never forget where I came from or who I started with,” Maldonado concluded. “At the end of the day, I’m just a normal guy.” 

Forward Forever and Up The ‘Gos.

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