Park City native Sebastian Saucedo weighs in on Olympic disappointment, move to Mexico
Saucedo has spent the last two years playing for UNAM Pumas in Mexico
In the lobby of the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse there’s a framed Sebastian Saucedo jersey, a gift from the Park City native’s playing days at Real Salt Lake. Just a few steps away is a full turf field adorned with soccer goals that are used for thrice-weekly drop-in games. Along with a signature, he left a message on the jersey.
“Thank you Basin Rec for everything you’ve done for me to be able to achieve my dreams!” it reads.
The 24-year-old remembers when the Fieldhouse was first being built. Back then, he was playing anywhere that had grass on it.
“For me, it’s special because I was once that young kid training at North 40 Field, I was once that young kid training at Willow Creek, I was once that young kid training at Quinn’s Junction,” Saucedo said. “I was there, I went through it all. I was there when they were first building, you know, Newpark and the Fieldhouse. You know, everything was brand new, and I was such a little kid.”
Perhaps the Fieldhouse isn’t the “House That Sebastian Saucedo Built,” but Park City is still near and dear to Saucedo, who has gone from the local kid playing for the local club to a man playing for UNAM Pumas, one of the biggest clubs in Mexico.
Olympic hopes shattered
In a town known for its Olympians, Saucedo was on track to become not just another Park City Olympian, but an Olympian in a sport that Park City isn’t even known for. He was named to the U.S. Men’s Olympic qualification roster, which would be his first and only shot at making it to the Olympics. The men’s tournament at the Olympics is usually an under-23 tournament with three overage exceptions, though this year’s competition will be an under-24 tournament after the Games were pushed back a year.
The United States finished second in its group behind Mexico, but that was still enough to clinch a spot in the knockout round, where all the U.S. had to do was win against Honduras to punch a ticket to Tokyo. As one of the two international soccer powers in North America, the Americans were favorites to move on.
But that’s not what happened. Honduras upset the U.S. 2-1, sending the Americans home. The U.S. men’s team still hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since the 2008 Games.
For Saucedo, who entered the game in the second half, the opportunity of a lifetime was gone.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Saucedo said. “You know there’s a lot of winter sports, there’s a lot of athletes with that and gold medalists (in Park City), but this would have been something special for me to be one of the first soccer athletes. I already feel like being kind of in the qualifying roster for the Olympics is special enough anyway, but being there at the Olympics would have been taking it up a notch.”
There was some extra salt in the wound just three months later when he wasn’t named to the preliminary 59-man roster for the Gold Cup, a bi-annual tournament that pits national teams across North America, Central America and the Caribbean against each other. Meanwhile, he shares a locker room with teammates at Pumas who are receiving call-ups to the Mexican national team, like center back Johan Vasquez, who was named to Mexico’s preliminary Gold Cup roster.
“Very disappointed to not even make the preliminary roster, very, very disappointed, but that’s how soccer works, and at the end of the day, you know, I’m not too worried,” he said. “(It’s) crazy to me because I share the locker room with them and I feel like I’m one special player for the team here, and so it just throws me off. But at the end of the day, it’s nothing you can worry about.”
For years, Saucedo’s life centered on two things: soccer and home. Aside from a brief stint in Mexico as a teenager, his entire career revolved around Utah. Saucedo was in Real Salt Lake’s academy system before being signed as a homegrown player in 2014. He made his debut with Real Salt Lake in 2015 and appeared in 83 matches, including 29 starts, through the 2019 season.
In 2018 he scored his first career MLS goal against the Seattle Sounders with a curling effort that beat goalkeeper Stefan Frei in a 1-0 win. The winger registered five goals and eight assists in his four seasons with Real Salt Lake.
But Saucedo’s contract with Real Salt Lake expired following the 2019 season, and he opted to sign with Pumas UNAM in Mexico.
Moving from the U.S. to Mexico, where soccer is wildly popular, was a huge adjustment. Real Salt Lake’s days in the MLS date back to its founding in 2004, while Pumas has been in Liga MX since the 1962-63 season. Based in Mexico City, the team is one of the biggest in the country and has won seven titles.
“It’s something different, soccer’s more taken seriously here and in Mexico in general,” Saucedo said. “You have a lot of pressure, not just from the president and the club.”
Any early jitters about playing for a premier club were extinguished immediately. Just 25 minutes into his debut, Saucedo collected the ball on the left wing, cut inside and delivered a strike past the sprawling goalkeeper in a 2-1 win. Saucedo added two assists in the next nine matches before the season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Saucedo struggled to see the field last season because he couldn’t stay healthy. After playing in three of UNAM’s first five matches, Saucedo was sidelined with a hamstring injury and couldn’t return until the semifinals of the fall season. He was then injured again from January to April during the spring before starting the last four games of the season.
Now, he’s fully healthy and feeling good ahead of another season after his stint with the national team.
“This is my first full preseason healthy, and you can see a difference,” Saucedo said. “I’m so excited, eating healthy, taking care of my body. And I’m excited for what’s to come and what opportunities are to be proven in the future.”
Playing for his hometown team for a few seasons meant the world to Saucedo. But now, he’s hoping that his move to UNAM is the next big step for his career. The kid who was once running around in Mexican leagues in Salt Lake City with a shaved head as a tribute to Adolfo “Bofo” Bautista – a nickname Saucedo shares – is now pushing forward with his dream.
“Obviously, Real Salt Lake was different for me, it’s a hometown club and I really enjoyed playing my career in the MLS, and obviously for Salt Lake it was a dream of mine,” he said. “But where I’m at now is another step in my career where I want to sacrifice a little bit more and push myself and it has been nothing but amazing.”
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