Before every men’s soccer game at Merlo Field, freshman midfielder Rey Ortiz takes a seat in front of his locker and picks up his custom made shin guards. Always the right one first. ‘Family Forever’ is printed on the front below an image of him holding his little sister, sitting alongside his parents. He gives it at a kiss and straps it on.
Then the left one. ‘Brotherhood’ is etched on the front below a picture of Ortiz and his Los Angeles Galaxy Academy teammates. He kisses the left shin guard and puts it on. He then turns his body towards the Mexican flag that drapes from his locker and he bows his head to pray. Once he gets to the field, he prays once more.
And junior Brandon Zambrano follows suit. He always prays right before the officials’ whistle, taking a squat and extending his right fist towards the turf. He lowers his head for 30 seconds.
Both men are proud to be Mexican. They’re grateful to play the game they love for the opportunity to create a better life for their families.
Because the odds were against them.
“I want to help my parents and make their lives easier as they have sacrificed so much,” Zambrano said.
Ortiz and Zambrano first crossed paths in San Diego, California where they played in a kids’ Sunday soccer league. They reunited several years later on the University City high school varsity team. Now, they’re teammates on The Bluff.
Zambrano is the outgoing one. He loves to pull pranks on teammates, cracking jokes at every opportunity. Ortiz is more reserved. He likes spending his time off the turf hanging out in the dorms and playing ‘Call of Duty’ on his PS4. The two mesh despite their different personalities. One moment, they’ll tease each other in their respective Spanish slangs. The next, they’re singing along to reggaeton music by artists J Balvin and Maluma.
It’s like a big brother-little brother relationship.
“We’re so similar and different at the same time,” Ortiz said.
Their connection can be traced back to their childhoods in Mexico.
Zambrano was born in Tijuana, a border city in the country’s northwest corner. His family didn’t have much money. They lived off his father’s minimum wage paychecks. They lived in a small, half-constructed brick home where burglars were a constant threat. But Zambrano made the most of his childhood. He ran around with his older brother, Edwin, playing tag and various sports on a court near their house.
Zambrano moved to San Diego with his family when he was nine years old. One day, he joined a group of older kids playing soccer in the neighborhood. During one play, the ball was kicked right into his face and he bolted off, crying. But after an hour, he came back for more.
He’d found his calling: soccer.
“I loved it and right away I figured out that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” Zambrano said.
Soccer is a generational tradition in the Ortiz family.
Ortiz’ grandfather played in Mexico. His father played competitively in Mexico and in the United States. As a five-year-old, Ortiz’ favorite moments were watching his dad’s games with the family and friends that would gather to watch every Sunday at noon. Laughter and conversation would fill the air after games.
After all, soccer is their escape.
Ortiz hails from Acapulco, Mexico which reportedly has the highest murder rate of any Mexican city and the fourth highest of any city in the world. Gun violence and drug cartels have devastated the once buzzing beach resort city. Ortiz has been personally affected by the crime, as he has family members and friends in gangs.
Ortiz does not remember much of the violence. His parents, wanting to pursue the American Dream, moved him to San Diego when he was three years old.
“I’m blessed that I got to come [to the states as] an immigrant,” Ortiz said.
His mother passed away from lymphoma cancer last year. In memory of her, he has her name with an image of heaven’s gates opening up tattooed on his chest. He also has a tattoo of the Virgin Mary carrying baby Jesus on his left arm. The rose underneath Mary symbolizes his mother’s life.
Ortiz sees his mother’s legacy living on through his three-year-old sister, who he says is identical to her.
“I know [my mom is] in a better place so I’ll always have her with me somehow, someway,” Ortiz said.
Halfway through his freshman year of high school, Ortiz transferred to University City. He and Zambrano, a junior at the time, helped the school to win a California state title in 2013.
The two have chemistry on the field and, individually, they’ve shown promise.
Zambrano, a midfielder and forward, patterns his game after Brazilian soccer star Neymar. He loves doing the step-over move to juke defenders. His friends from home often say he does opposing team ‘dirty’ up in Portland. He broke out onto the scene as a freshman, netting a hat trick against Saint Mary’s.
Although listed at just 5 foot 5 inches, Ortiz impacts the game with high IQ play. He uses his change of speed to deceive defenders and set teammates up to score. He’s assisted on two of the Pilots’ 12 goals this season.
“He’s unselfish and a great reader of the game,” teammate Kienan Weekes said.
Off the field, both Ortiz and Zambrano aspire to provide for their loved ones.
Growing up, Ortiz would send soccer gear to family back in Acapulco. Zambrano paid for his parents’ plane tickets to Portland this past August. The game against Ohio State was the first time they’d seen him play at Merlo.
In high school, Zambrano and his brother talked about getting scholarships to college. They did not want their parents to pay a cent. And they achieved their goal. Brandon received a full ride for soccer and Edwin earned a full academic scholarship.
“Brandon is definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” Edwin said of his brother. “If he says something, he’ll do it.”
Ortiz’s parents stopped going to school after fifth grade in order to work. Only one other person in his family has graduated from high school. Ortiz did not see college as an option: It was a necessity. His parents rose the standard by moving the family to the United States. He wants to raise the bar even higher for his little brother and sister.
When Ortiz and Zambrano pray before games, all they’ve been through flashes through their minds.
For Zambrano, it’s the tiny home in Tijuana. The burglaries. His dad’s 18-hour work shifts and the family scraping by on money.
Faint memories of Acapulco are a constant reminder for Ortiz. He thinks about his family members that have succumbed to gang life. His late mother. His little brother and sister.
The two have different journeys to The Bluff, but a similar struggle. Immigrant parents, financial insecurity, the desire to provide for their families.
[We’re] like a puzzle,” Ortiz said. “We just fit together.”
So when they’re on the field, expectations are high because they’re living a dream much larger than just themselves.