Giving back to the game

The days in the net may be over for Ruben Fernandez, but you won't find him too far from a soccer field.

The Irvine resident now shares his love, dedication and devotion to the beautiful game through coaching. He is teaching the youth of the Irvine Strikers boys' U15 soccer club how to properly handle being the person between those two pressure-packed posts. Because when the defense breaks down, you're all alone on an island; with all eyes focused on you.

Fernandez was a journeyman goalkeeper. He played everywhere, from Spain to the United States, and even on Brazil's most beautiful beaches.

Goalkeeping is now his specialty, but as Fernandez will tell you, he didn't always know that was his calling.

"When you played with your friends in the street, you played every position," he said. "It was when I started playing organized soccer that I knew I wanted to be a goalkeeper."

The athletes who play this position have to have the highest self-confidence, because they are the first to blame for a loss, and sometimes the last to receive credit for a win. Goalkeepers need a humbleness about them, and Fernandez has it.

His players learn from him on the pitch, yet they also receive lessons from becoming aware of his background.

Like most children in Spain, Fernandez grew up wanting to become a professional soccer player. While Fernandez was growing up, kids spent their free time doing outdoor activities.

"We didn't have a lot of electronics to play with, so most of our time was spent outside playing soccer," he said.

He quickly developed a love for the game, and knew he wanted to make it a career.

His playing career began in the very well respected Real Aviles youth system. These systems are designed to take young, talented and determined athletes to develop their skills. From age 11 to 18, Fernandez worked day in and day out, in hopes of one day reaching his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.

Fernandez moved up the ranks of the Real Aviles youth system, and played his first professional stint with CF Fuensalida in Spain's third division. It was there that Fernandez received his first soccer culture shock.

"It was going from playing against boys, to playing against men," he said.

His second and last professional soccer team in Spain was Atletico Alcorcon, also in Spain's third division.

Fernandez met his wife, Rachel, in Spain, which led him to leave behind the game he so greatly adored to come to America. His intentions were to come to the U.S. for a few years to learn English, but he received a try-out with the Anaheim Splash of the Continental Indoor Soccer League, and they pitched him an offer he could not turn down.

Initially, Fernandez was signed to the Splash as a backup goalkeeper, but that didn't last long. Soon enough, Fernandez worked his way into the starting role, and he excelled.

He was the starting goalie for the Splash from 1994-1997, and all four of those years were productive. While playing for the Splash, Fernandez found it hard to adjust to the lack of popularity soccer had in America.

"Coming from Spain, where everybody loves the game of soccer, to a place where it wasn't very popular, it was very hard to adjust," he said.

Fernandez was recognized as one of the best goalkeepers to ever grace the pitch in the CISL. He ranks among the top ten in goalkeeper games played (80), goalkeeper wins (47), and goals against average (5.29). He was also recognized as an All-Star in 1995.

The Anaheim Splash not only presented Fernandez with a chance to continue playing, but Splash General Manager Don Ebert, also the director of the Irvine Strikers, offered Fernandez a coaching job. Fernandez jumped at the opportunity.

"Don Ebert offered me a coaching job; it was another way to continue with soccer, so I took it," Fernandez said.

The Continental Indoor Soccer league disbanded in 1997, leaving Fernandez to yet again, find another way to display his love and dedication to the game. He continued his dream in the unlikeliest of places, beach soccer. He represented the United States in the Beach Soccer Copa America Tournament and the Beach Soccer World Championships in 1998 and 1999.

His time playing beach soccer turned out the be one of the best experiences he had during his playing days.

"You got to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world, and I got to play against a lot of retired players who I grew up watching as a kid," he said.

Fernandez now lives in Irvine with Rachel and his three children. His playing days are now just a memory, but his love for the game won't ever fade. He will continue to use coaching as an outlet to lend his expertise to the youth of Orange County.

What the game gave to him, Fernandez is now giving back.

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