For Houston Dynamo midfielder Danny Cruz, the journey has come full circle. After four standout years at Glendale Ironwood High School, in Glendale, Ariz., Cruz returned last week to the place where it all began as the Dynamo traveled to Phoenix for the first time as part of their preparation for the 2011 season. Houston played three games in five days, allowing Cruz’s family and friends to see the maturation of a player who did not kick a soccer ball until ninth grade.
“When we heard that preseason was here, we were thrilled because we knew we would get a chance to see him,” said Janet Renicar, Cruz’s mother.
Cruz’s path to a professional soccer career is unique. Cruz's family moved around a lot growing up because his father was in the military, and while living in Northern California during his elementary school days, he fell in love not with soccer, but with hockey.
“[Hockey] was my main sport growing up,” he said. “When we lived in Northern California, I had a neighbor who played and got us into it. There were a lot of teams that wanted me to play for them, so even after we moved to Arizona, my mom would still drive me back to California on weekends to play on various hockey teams.”
In sixth grade, Cruz's family moved to Phoenix. Although he continued to play hockey competitively, he also started to play football and believed that football would be his path to a college scholarship. In ninth grade, the soccer coaches at Ironwood High suggested he play soccer to stay in shape for the football season. Playing on the junior varsity team, Cruz said he was able to use his speed to score a lot of goals and impress the coaches.
It was not long before Cruz realized that his path to college was on the soccer pitch, not the football field, and after two state championships and All-Arizona honors his senior season, Cruz had arrived onto the national soccer scene.
“From the junior varsity team in ninth grade, I went to varsity in 10th grade, and then it all sprang up so quick,” he said. “From there I went to the U-17s [national team] to the State [Olympic Development Program] team, to the Regional ODP team, to the U-20 World Cup. It all happened so fast.”
Cruz played two years of college soccer at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas before he signed a Generation adidas contract and was selected in the third round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft by the Houston Dynamo. Although he had only played soccer a short while, Cruz’s rise to stardom did not surprise his biggest supporters.
“I’ve always known that he had a natural ability to play sports,” his mother said. “He didn’t really start soccer until high school, and he had that speed which made him stand out. But for me, watching him, it’s more about his heart. He puts everything into it. He found the passion for soccer, and you can see it when he is on field.”
Last week, with friends and family in attendance, Cruz showed that passion, scoring a stellar goal in the eighth minute of a scrimmage against the Columbus Crew. The Dynamo won that game 4-2 and after defeating Sporting Kansas City and playing Portland to a scoreless draw, the Dynamo exited Phoenix with their undefeated preseason record intact.
“It’s been great playing out here,” Cruz said. “I’ve seen coaches who I played against then, who may not have liked me because we were on opposite teams, but now there is a mutual respect. With regard to my family, it really meant a lot to me to have my family out there and for them to be able to see me play.”
Although Cruz’s parents are divorced, both his mother and father came out to watch him play, along with his sister, grandparents, cousins, friends of the family, and reporters who have covered Cruz since his Glendale Ironwood days. Renicar said she had only seen her son play twice since the Dynamo drafted Danny – once in Houston and once in Los Angles – so the week in Phoenix was truly special.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “He has played sports for his entire life, and I have always been there, but at this level, with him being so far away, and having other kids, it’s very hard to see him play. I always knew, though, that he would be successful. Every sport he played, he gave it 100 percent because he enjoyed the sport, whatever that sport was. I didn’t know it would be soccer, but I knew it would be something.”