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Mantecan living out dream as pro soccer player

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Mantecan living out dream as pro soccer player

Manteca resident and California Cougars professional indoor soccer player Araia Berhane gets ready to put on a demonstration during the "Health's a Kick!" assembly at Shasta School recently.


POSTED December 9, 2010 3:18 a.m.
The sound of his own name emanated from the speakers, bounced off the walls of Stockton Arena and rattled the nerves of Araia Berhane.

The thought of that moment still tickles the 24-year-old Mantecan, who also recalls hearing the specific voices of friends and family drown out the rest of fan noise as he was introduced before Saturday’s U.S. Open Cup Arena Soccer Championships opening-round match.

It was Berhane’s debut on the California Cougars’ active roster and the start of a dream coming true.

“I’ve heard my name announced before, back when I played in high school and college, but not in an arena in front of paying fans,” said Berhane, a 2004 graduate of Sierra High who went on to play for Modesto Junior College and San Francisco State.

“It’s something that you don’t understand until you experience it, something you can’t explain.”

The night got even better for him.

Berhane, a defender, started the second half and was a factor in the Cougars’ thrilling 8-7 overtime win over Top Notch FC of San Jose. He posted his first assist as a professional and jump started the attacking run that resulted in Ernesto Buenos’ victory-clinching golden goal. The win was the first of the season for the Cougars, who do most of their work in the Professional Arena Soccer League (PASL-Pro).

But it wasn’t until after the match that dream met reality.

Berhane bumped into a group of tweenagers he had seen just a week before at Shasta School’s “Health’s a Kick!” event put on by the California Cougars.

They recognized him immediately and requested his autograph, conjuring up memories of himself as a middle-school student in San Jose when players from the San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes) Major League Soccer franchise would visit the campus.

Berhane relishes his opportunity to not only play professionally, but to use his local celebrity status to positively influence youth in the community.

“I asked if there is any type of community event in Manteca that I can be a part of, and after that one appearance at Shasta a couple other people have asked that I come to their school,” Berhane said. “I saw that some of the kids from Shasta actually went to the game that I got to play in — that’s a memory that we’ll always share.

“I remember when I was watching Clash games and then having those same players show up at my school. Now here I am giving autographs to fifth and sixth graders and taking pictures with fans at every home game.”

Not long ago, his lifelong dream was a mere afterthought.

After graduating from San Jose State in 2008 with a degree in broadcast journalism, he briefly played for the San Francisco Seals of the Premier Development League — the highest level of amateur men’s soccer in the United States.

During his stint with the Seals, the team spent two weeks in England for a camp that exposed the players to European scouts from professional clubs.

That was supposed to be his stepping stone to greater things.

“I thought that was my shot, my big opportunity,” Berhane said. “When nothing happened, I just came back home to Manteca because it got too expensive for me to live in San Francisco.

“By the looks of things it was pretty much a wrap for me in soccer because of my age. At 22 or 23 you’re too old, and if no (professional team) has picked you up by then it’s probably never going to happen.

“I just thought I’d play in the Sunday beer leagues at (Big League Dreams — Manteca), be a legend there, get my masters and be a college coach somewhere.”

Until then, it was work the part-time job, coach his Manteca FC Dynasty under-17 girls team and serve as an assistant for his old high school’s varsity soccer squads. He had also played for Manteca FC’s under-23 men’s team for two NorCal Premier seasons.

A chance meeting with Delta College co-head coach David Bond over the summer changed everything.

Berhane was at Woodward Park in Manteca getting his under-17 players prepped for a scrimmage. Bond approached Berhane, who initially thought he was being recruited to play collegiately.

“I told him, ‘Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’ve already played four years of college,’” Berhane said.

Bond already knew that. He wanted to know what his aspirations were beyond the college ranks. Then he encouraged Berhane to try out for the Cougars.

“I preferred outdoor soccer, but I saw this as a foot in the door,” Berhane said. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’”

In September and October Berhane made it to two of the three tryout sessions. Before he knew it, he was signing a contract, quitting the part-time job to dedicate his time to training and reuniting with former Modesto JC teammate Uriel Robledo of Tracy — a third-year player for the Cougars.

“It all happened so fast,” he said.

Things are beginning to slow down for him these days as he continues to adjust to the fast pace of the indoor game as well as the higher level of play.

“Nothing is ever promised or guaranteed,” he said. “There were players on the team last year who we all thought were going to be back but didn’t make it.

“I just have to work hard every day, because now it’s a job. I get to do something as simple as play soccer and get paid for it, but I can’t take it for granted. I have to bring my game up to the next level.”
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