The World Cup is the Shangri-La of soccer to most players and fans of the beautiful game, but Mike Preis of Cal State Northridge has dreamed of playing in the Olympic Games since he was in the seventh grade.
Preis, a senior, could take a big step toward reaching that goal in the next two weeks playing for the U.S. men's team in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.
Although the U.S. team is comprised of young, developing players, an impressive showing by Preis would improve his chances of gaining an Olympic team berth next year, when the bulk of the national 23-and-under squad will consist of Major League Soccer players.
"We're trying to get an idea of what he's about," said Clive Charles, coach of the Pan American and Olympic teams. "Mike is one of several players who had done well at the collegiate level last year. Now we want to see how he plays at the international level."
Preis, who led Northridge with 14 goals last season, isn't expected to start against Cuba today, but the 5-foot-8, 155-pound forward could get substantial playing time in the 10-team tournament.
"I'm so proud to be on the team," Preis said. "Any time you get to play with the level of players that I'll be playing with and against, it can only help your game."
Preis, who set a school scoring record during his three varsity seasons at Chatsworth High, was selected to the national all-independent college second team last year.
But he was surprised when he was chosen to play for the national 23-and-under team.
"My brother-in-law [Ivan Alzate, assistant coach at Northridge] told me on my [21st] birthday," Preis said. "He gave me a card that said something like, 'Sorry brother, there's no money in here and no lottery ticket either, but you're going to Brazil.' "
Preis didn't play in the U.S. team's 7-0 loss to Brazil on April 7, but he was on the field for the final 20 minutes of a 1-1 tie against Canada at Charleston, S.C., on May 19.
"Hearing the national anthem being played in front of 45,000 fans [in Brasilia] was just incredible," Preis said. "It made you feel like this is what it's all about. It gave you a little bit of the chills."
Preis, whose name is pronounced Price, began playing soccer when he was 5.
He was small for his age, but Marwan Ass'ad, former Northridge coach, said that helped Preis develop all-around skills.
"Mikey was always quick, but he wasn't fast," said Ass'ad, an instructor at numerous youth soccer camps that Preis attended. "When you don't have height and speed, you rely on your skills and your intelligence. . . . And those two things are what's most important at the highest levels."
Preis' speed improved in high school and helped him earn All-City Section honors as a senior.
He chose Northridge over San Jose State, Nevada Las Vegas and UC Santa Barbara because of his affinity for Ass'ad.
"Marwan Ass'ad is like my mentor," Preis said. "He's like a second father to me. Not just when it comes to soccer, but when it comes to life, too."
Preis had seven goals and six assists as a freshman at Northridge, but he scored only three goals as a sophomore.
"I don't know what happened," Ass'ad said. "He had so many [one-on-one opportunities] that season, but it just wasn't his year for scoring."
Preis' goal-scoring struggles followed a tumultuous summer in which Northridge administrators cut soccer and three other men's sports before reinstating the programs.
Preis had 14 goals and eight assists last year to help Northridge to a 12-5 record. Ass'ad resigned in December to take a position as a director and club coach for the West Valley Soccer League.
Ass'ad's departure saddened Preis, but he's looking forward to playing under Coach Terry Davila on a team that has several top players back and won 12 of its last 13 games.
"With the majority of us coming back, we should be OK," Preis said. "I feel that this year, we've got a chance to do real well."
Northridge will host Vanguard University in the opener on Sept. 1.
In the meantime, Preis plans to make the most of his opportunity with the national team.
"I want to gain as much experience as I can," Preis said. "Two of my goals have always been to play in the Olympic Games and to play professionally, and I think being on this team is going to help in that regard."