MEXICO CITY — Emil Cuello stepped onto the field with his side losing 1-0. They’d go on to lose by three. Still, that appearance in the U.S. Open Cup final was one of the highlights of his career.
“That was a really cool experience playing in that final, being a part of that team,” Cuello said. “The way that team just came together, you could tell that we had a special group.”
Cuello was playing for Sacramento Republic, the first non-MLS side to make it to the national cup competition’s championship game for over a decade.
It wasn’t quite Barcelona, whose star Lionel Messi Cuello obsessed over in his youth. Who else was a young Argentinian boy who went on to play as an attacking midfielder to look up to?
“I would sit on the computer and watch videos of Messi on YouTube for hours, and just try to replicate what he was doing,” Cuello said.
Cuello spent most of his childhood in Ogden, Utah, a city he described as “very quiet, very safe.”
“Not a lot going on, but beautiful,” Cuello added. “I think it’s a little underrated, but I grew up near the mountains and I liked doing outdoor stuff, so it was a good place to go.”
Utah was a far cry from his home town of Buenos Aires in Argentina. That’s where Cuello lived his earliest years, before his parents moved the family to the United States in pursuit of better opportunities for him and his siblings.
“In 2002, the country wasn’t doing very well,” Cuello said. “It wasn’t a very safe place to grow up in, and my parents didn’t really want that life for me and my siblings.”
He was just five years old when his family made the move.
“I remember very little from Argentina, actually,” Cuello said. “I’ve been back, so I know a little bit more now, but when I was little, I had a few memories of just the block that I was born on.
“There was actually a soccer field right across the street from where my house was, and it’s all like weeds, this goal made of sticks. It was cool to go back and see that, actually.”
Despite his young age, the move was difficult at first. Cuello’s first moments in kindergarten were difficult. He didn’t understand a word of English.
If there was one language he didn’t need any help in understanding, though, it was soccer.
“I have memories with my old man, with my dad, playing,” Cuello said. “We would go to the park all the time and I have really good memories of that. We would play in the house. I would break a bunch of stuff, if you asked my mom.”
Utah would prove a challenge in that regard, too. Cuello might have been destined for the professional levels, but the infrastructure to support that at the time was lacking. At age seven, he first starting playing competively in a “really bad league,” and he jumped around a few different clubs in his youth.
“Once I was in high school, I played high school,” Cuello said. “I played for a local club team called La Roca, and from there I was able to play in a couple of tournaments there in Utah, playing tournaments outside of Utah and then be recruited by SMU.”
While at SMU, Cuello had the opportunity to train with FC Dallas over a couple of summers. He’d eventually hear his name called, while watching the draft online with his family, to play for LA Galaxy.
Galaxy may be best known for their titles, and for David Beckham’s stint there. At the time Cuello resided in Los Angeles, all the focus instead was on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“Probably the best player that I played with was Ibrahimovic, but my favorite player and the one that I took the most from was Jonathan dos Santos, ” Cuello said.
“He was class. On the field, just training with him every day was special because you could tell that he spent some time with Barcelona. The way he played in the midfield and then just as a person, he was great. Always good energy, positive vibes, very nice to everybody even though he’s a star.”
Cuello ultimately failed to establish himself in Tinseltown, and since then has bounced around USL. First, it was San Antonio. Then, after a loan spell, it was Sacramento.
Now, at 26 years old, he’s moved to Phoenix.
“It didn’t take much to convince me,” Cuello said. “Phoenix Rising was always a club that I wanted to play for here in USL. Once [Rising coach Juan Guerra] told me that he wanted me to come and play at the 10, that’s all I wanted to hear. That’s all I really wanted to hear, because that’s my position. That’s where I want to play.”
At Rising, the expectations have always been high. That’s why Cuello, and so many other players over the years, have picked them as the team they want to play for in USL Championship.
Now, after coming so close to being on the first non-MLS team this side of the millennium to take U.S. Soccer’s national championship last year, Cuello is ready to give it another shot with his new club.
“It makes me hungry,” Cuello said. “It also gives me that belief that it’s possible.
“A lot of USL teams don’t believe that they can do it, but we proved that it’s possible. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t believe that we can go and win it.”
Follow Owain Evans and PHNX Rising on Twitter for updates from Rising’s Mexico City training camp throughout the week.