Emmanuel Ortuño participates in a game in Europe. Ortuño grew up playing soccer in Liberal and is now chasing his dream in the professional leagues by playing in South America and now in Europe. Courtesy photo

EARL WATT

    • Leader & Times

 

Grasshopper Soccer was Emmanuel Ortuño’s first experience with the game of soccer during his childhood in Liberal. He then played Kids Inc. and participated on traveling teams. He moved on to middle school and high school before becoming the first-ever soccer player to sign for Seward County Community College.

His journey with the game took him beyond Kansas and beyond the United States, and now Ortuño is chasing his dream of not only being a professional soccer player but also playing against some of the best soccer players on the planet.

After his season ended at Seward, Ortuño headed to Mexico, which led to moves to Brazil, Turkey and Albania.

“I feel like high school was fun and the highlight of my career,” Ortuño said. “Every time I went up the ranks it got more serious. High school was for fun. College was fun. You are still in your community, that’s a feeling you never get again. Now that I’ve been playing pro, it has been a long journey. I’ve played with many clubs — Sporting Wichita, a team in Dallas. We competed in Elite Clubs National League which is one of the best leagues in the United States.”

Ortuño’s first experience with soccer wasn’t the best when he was 5 years old.

“My dad tried to involve me in soccer, and he said the first game I cried and he had to take me out,” Ortuño said. “The next year I liked it and never stopped.”

When he reached Kids Inc., he met some other players and families who joined together for a traveling team. They went to Dodge City, Wichita and beyond.

And his dad, Manuel Ortuño, saw something special in Emmanuel.

“When he played Kids Inc., we saw the talent he had,” his dad said. “Now he practices himself, he works hard on his own. He knows what he needs to do. Every father supports their kids to be their best, and that’s what I tried to do.”

Part of that was to expose Emmanuel to higher levels of competition.

“We went  to tryouts,” Manuel said. “We went to Dodge City teams, we tried out for Sporting Wichita. He made it. In the past, we met with coordinators in the area. We went to see professionals and how they play and how to teach him. We tried to find those opportunities. We traveled every weekend. Then we went to Dallas — another level. We drove every weekend. He played for Crew America. Then he played for a team from Mexico. He learned a lot more. Every time was another step.”

All of that experience was giving Ortuño an edge that led to him being the first-ever soccer player for the inaugural Seward County Community College soccer team.

“It was an honor to be the first signee at SCCC,” Ortuño said. “The most memorable thing is to represent your community. It’s the same thing in high school but at a higher level. You’re the first signee, first ever soccer team — that puts weight on your shoulders. It wasn’t too much. I was happy to receive that acknowledgment.”

Ortuño was now on a team with international players, and they were competitive.

“The level is a dramatic change,” he said. “You get international players, and you have to be more dedicated. You can focus more on soccer, but you have to be on top of it in the class, too.”

From the beginning Ortuño knew college would be tougher.

“From the first practice, you looked around and there was a lot of talent,” he said. “It was competitive. You would be lucky in another program to have 20 players on a first-year team. We had about 40. The first win was really hard. Our first win was against Coffeyville. It took us three conference games. I remember that feeling, to get that first-ever win for Seward.”

After the season ended, he was seen by Gustavo Perez at a tryout. Perez was a former coach in some of the premier leagues in Mexico and South America, and he was looking for players who could play professionally. He saw something in Emmanuel.

“I’m looking for boys with discipline and technique, and Emmanuel stood out,” Perez said. “For us it is important to have good soccer players and good students. They have to go together.”

Like anyone seeking the best, Perez was looking for a player who could compete at the highest level — speed, good statistics and intelligence.

And doors started to open for Emmanuel.

“Where I started playing, there are four divisions, all pro,” Ortuño said. “I was playing first division. There’s first, second, third and Super League. First goes to Super League next. They want the best players in the higher leagues. They play by region. In Europe, the best of each country plays in the champions league or Europa league. That’s like the Super Bowl of soccer. Here in the Americas, you play Concacaf. The U.S., Mexico and South American countries gather their best and play one big tournament and a club world cup.”

That led to a short stint in Brazil and then a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Turkey. From there it was on to Albania.

“I was on FK Bylis first division in Albania,” Ortuño said. “My plan was to go play a tournament in Turkey. When we went to Turkey, we stayed there a month and there were 22 players. Out of those, two of us were 18 (years old), so I was one of the youngest. From there, I was one of the three to stay in Europe. The pace of the game moves so much faster, more physical. You have to think fast and know what you are going to do before you touch the ball. You have to take the ball away from another player before they receive it. You have to think.”

In his first game in Albania, as a newcomer, he came in the final 10 to 15 minutes.

“My first ever game was against the rival,” he said. “They started cussing at me in the stands, but I didn’t know the language. I looked back and thought, ‘Are they saying something nice?’ But I thought, ‘Whatever.’ My teammates asked me if I was nervous. I said, ‘No,’ and they told me they were cussing at me.”

Welcome to the pros.

His sister Stefany also recalled the quick journey from the farm fields of Southwest Kansas to the soccer fields of Europe.

“We went with him to Turkey,” she said. “While watching him since Kids Inc., middle school, high school and college, Turkey was like flipping the page. It was completely different. Even the soccer here is boring now since we saw him there. He has surprised us.”

Stefany didn’t make it to some of the countries because Emmanuel’s career was moving fast.

“We didn’t see him play in Mexico or Brazil,” she said. “We were finally able to see his first game in Albania, and we thought, ‘How is he going to do it?’ It was something totally different. Seeing the level he is playing at, we were surprised. It was mind boggling, we’ve never imagined it.”

The journey has been a whirlwind for Emmanuel, but with his agent in his corner and his family by his side, he has been able to chase his dream while also improving his game.

“Everything has gone so fast,” he said. “In six months my life went from college to Brazil to Turkey to Albania. In Albania, I needed to be faster, I needed to make my decisions faster. Now I feel like I need more playing time, more experience in this level, and developing in a way that will give me the edge to get to the next level. I’ve played against players who are in the champions league. I’ve played with top tier players, and I’m right there. I just need more experience to get where I want to be.”

And where he wants to be is the highest level international soccer has to offer. Ortuño plans on taking that next step soon.

“I’m a free agent, so we are looking at Portugal right now,” Ortuño said. “It is one of the best countries for soccer in Europe. It is the window to Spain and other countries like England. That’s what I need to reach my goals. Thanks to my agent and family, I will get that opportunity.”

As a defensive specialist, Ortuño has worked on improving in the areas that judge his play.

“A defender is rated on how many tackles they have won, how many 50-50s they have won, how many headers did they win. How many times did they join the attack or come out of the attack with pressure? Those are how you grade a defender.”

Perez said there are other intangibles that apply to all players.

“Even if they are offensive or defensive, the percentage of effectiveness is measured by effective passes, balls on the ground or in the air,” Perez said.

And while Europe has been a different culture experience, Ortuño knows it comes with chasing the dream.

“You know you will have to go through cultural differences,” he said. “You go in there and suck it up. This is my dream, and I will fight for it. In Albania, there was a language barrier. There were a lot of Muslims who can’t eat red meat. I love red meat. It was pure chicken. It was hard. But it’s your dream. Food, where you live — those are the least of your problems. Prove yourself and go to the next level.”

For those who want to chase the dream, he had some advice.

“Never be comfortable,” he said. “Always get out of your comfort zone. You have to go and get what you want. Appreciate what you have. Whatever you choose to do, the comforts of home won’t always be there. If your parents give you support, 100 percent take advantage of it. You may only get one chance. Take it.”

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