A lot of players have spent time on Real Salt Lake’s roster over the years; some arrived with great fanfare, others merely a mere mention. Some showed promise, while others never saw the field.
Here’s an in depth interview with a former player in our series Where Are They Now.
Many long-time fans of RSL will remember Sebastian Velasquez. He was RSL’s 36th pick in 2012, and caught most of the draft pundits completely by surprise. Even here at the Soapbox we were scrambling to try to find out any information on this young “diamond in the rough”. He had a very good preseason camp and must have impressed the coaching staff because he was given a contract. His first start came on March 10, 2012 against LA Galaxy; he was steady on the left side of the diamond, but he didn’t make an impact until the 73rd minute when he picked up the ball passed from Ned Grabavoy, shuffled a bit and sent it into the box. LA Galaxy’s Todd Dunivant deflected the cross into the goal and was credited with the Own Goal, but for RSL fans it was all down to Velasquez. RSL went on to win 3-1.
That was our introduction to the young draft pick. Over the short 3 season with RSL, he played 38 regular season games, starting 15 of them. While he only scored twice (once in regular season, and one very memorable goal in the playoffs), he did become a favorite of many fans with his distinctive hairstyles.
Many will remember that he followed former RSL coach Jason Kreis to NYCFC after a trade. After that he made a return to Utah with the Real Monarchs in 2017 and helped the team win the USL Shield that year scoring 9 times. Fans may have lost track of him after he left the Monarchs at the end of 2018.
To start 2019, he made his first trip abroad in the South Korean 2nd division, then returned to the USL to end the season for El Paso Locomotive; he played for Miami FC in the abbreviated 2020 season, then went abroad again — this time, to Israel, to play for Bnei Sakhnin FC. And that’s where we’ll pick up the interview!
KA: What’s it like playing in Israel? How did the opportunity come up to go over there?
The Israel Premier League is the first division. There are many top level clubs in this league that are competing or have competed in top level tournaments such as Europa League and UEFA Champions League. It is a beautiful country by the way and the stadiums are unreal. Top level stadiums so it is great to be playing in these environments every weekend. The opportunity came about towards the end of this year when my agent Chris Wingert was contacted by the agent Itamar Keinan. There was a team interested in me and the two worked together to bring me here.
KA: How is playing in Israel different from the U.S.?
The Israel Premier League and MLS have some similarities for sure. The stadiums in both leagues are definitely top level. I think MLS has better training facilities for sure. The play quality is very similar as well except MLS is for sure more physical, here in Israel they are very technical on the ball. The language is definitely the struggle for me because I play with guys that speak Arabic and Hebrew. I do not understand either but some do speak English so I can communicate a little bit. I think MLS has the bigger stars that come through, like Zlatan, David Villa, Carlos Vela, Pirlo, Lampard, Nani, etc. and here it’s a ton of players that played all around Europe so the level is definitely there.
KA: How about your time in South Korea?
I was in Korea as well but that was 2nd division so obviously the conditions were completely lower than MLS but very similar to USL except for the stadiums in Korea were World Cup stadiums. The language was very difficult because many did not speak English and I do not speak Korean but some way or another I established many great friendships. My time there was short because my lady was pregnant and we wanted to have the baby in the US so I decided that I needed to come back home.
KA: What was it like coming back to Salt Lake to play for the Monarchs after having first been on the RSL side, and later with NYC?
It was very strange for me to be coming back to play for the Monarchs and not for RSL. I asked and begged to be honest but there was no place for me on the first team at the time. I was excited to be back in the club that gave me the opportunity to live my dream as a professional and debut at 20 years old. The most important situation for me was that I was going to be able to spend time with my son almost every day. Prior to that, I had already spoken to FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja, to sign there during that period but I decided that being a father and close to my son was more important. But in my mind, I honestly thought I was going to be back on the first team in no team especially after the two great seasons I had at Monarchs.
KA: What was your favorite goal scored for RSL?
My favorite career goal was the one for RSL against LA Galaxy in the playoffs. The atmosphere, the fans, the crucial moment because we were losing on aggregate, the end result of passing to the next round because of it. That header goal was such an amazing moment that I got to live with the RSL jersey on my back that I will never forget. It’s funny because we were on the plane flying back to SLC from LA after losing 1-0 and Garth walked up to me and said “when are you going to score your first goal?” so I responded “next game my man, watch” and it happened exactly like that which is super funny.
KA: Any favorite places in Utah you miss?
I miss everything about Utah, I had lived most of my life in South Carolina, and then my professional soccer career began in Salt Lake City, Utah. My first son lives in SLC so I fly many times every year to SLC to see my little guy. I have incredible memories living there, almost 6 years of my career were in SLC, 4 with RSL and 2 with Monarchs so it is tough not miss that place so it’s a place I will always consider home. But I mostly miss Park Cafe breakfast, geez they had amazing food! Hahahaha!
KA: Most fans know about the personal struggles you went through off the field, what are some challenges you faced after leaving MLS?
When my story came out and I was released from rehab 5 years ago, times were very difficult. No money, nowhere to go, just debts with lawyers to deal with my cases, and figuring out where I was going to play next or if anyone was even interested. Leaving MLS, knowing I had never played at my top level, was a personal frustration for me because even though I was dealing with my own demons and having my troubles, once I stepped on the field people really enjoyed the natural talent that I displayed especially at Rio Tinto and Yankee Stadium. All I needed was to get focus, polish my craft, be a top professional and forget everything that had happened in the past......which is what I have done for the past 5 years and things have been great since.
KA: How was sobriety changed you and your performance on the field?
Sobriety changed my life completely! I am not the same person that I was 6 years ago. That person was crazy, irresponsible, lacked professionalism, was always loaded during free time, and was out of shape by all means mentally and physically. Now, I am fit, healthy, very aware of everything around me, top professional, I move like I am 18 years old if you see my highlight videos. I am quick, agile, strong at the core, and I am playing my best football at this very moment especially at 1st division level which is why many teams are interested in me. If I had done this when I was 20 years old, who knows where I would have been, there is a reason I was taken to Barcelona at 16 years of age! I also think sobriety cleared the path for me to be not just successful in soccer, but in life as well. I am a great role model to my kids, a great son to my mother as always, and a person people can look up to.
KA: Any advice for young players hoping to get noticed?
My advice to young players would be to sacrifice all the fun things for now and focus on your main goal which is to play professional. There are many temptations out there that can destroy that dream with one bad decision. This game can give you everything you can imagine and most importantly it can set you up for the rest of your life. Football is only a quarter of our lives even if that....do not waste it because there are millions of kids that want to live become professional as well so work hard, stay focus, and be different on the field, even if it’s just a rat-tail!
KA: Any closing thoughts on the recent RSL events and the team getting sold?
I have seen the situation with RSL ownership and scandal. I hope RSL finds it way again. I hope the club and fans come together to move the team forward because when I was there, the standard was very high. The team was the star and the veterans made sure that everyone walked in the same direction at the same time. I hope the new owner that comes in, really invests in the club and really wants the club to succeed instead of running it as a business. We know football is a massive business, that’s a given, but having the support of the owner to want to win and be successful makes a massive difference because RSL has everything in place to be a top club in MLS. Wish you guys the very best and hope to see you again sometime in the future!
A huge thanks to Sebastian Velasquez for taking the time to bring us up to where he is now! We wish him well in his career, and hope to see him back in the USA at some point!