Men's Soccer: UCI's Cardenas finds his way

The collective groan from the crowd is as much a part of soccer as the colorful cleats. Spectators who take in 90 minutes of action are virtually guaranteed to see a series of maddening misfires, marginal miscalculations and the inevitable lapses of perfection that turn scoring chances into wasted opportunities.

Those who play the game are weaned on frustration, forced to justify as unlucky the dozens of instances each game in which an inch here or there might have altered the outcome, but instead left the coveted spotlight unclaimed.

Rare is the player who has not been frazzled by futility and addled by annoyance, resigned to rage against the maddening malaise with the inevitable shoulder shrug and the recitation of the game's universal credo: "That's soccer."

But through more than a decade on the pitch and a wondrous run of club and high school success, Enrique Cardenas had managed to escape all this, his enthusiastic love for the game, and his patience, virtually unscathed.

"We lost four games in four years," the UC Irvine senior forward and midfielder said of his time at Coachella Valley High, where he was named CIF Southern Section Player of the Year in his division and stirred things at the center of a soccer-rich culture that elevated him into a cult hero. "And I cried after every one of them."

The baby to four older sisters and two doting parents, Cardenas was coddled at home, where though luxuries were scarce, he typically needed only to express a wish for it to be granted.

When it came time to choose a college, Cardenas bristled at the thought of meeting interested coaches halfway, instead endorsing the more catered approach taken by Anteaters' head man George Kuntz, who figuratively laid his jacket over any potentially muddy spots along the recruiting road.

"I had a great career in high school and I came to Irvine thinking I was going to play," Cardenas, known as Keeykeh, said.

But slowed by a balky hamstring and a wrenched knee that prevented him from preparing for his freshman season, Cardenas was asked to redshirt the 2009 campaign that eventually produced a Big West Conference tournament title and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

All the frustration the game could deliver, hit him like a blind-slide tackle. And, upended, he lay motionless on the ground of a once-promising career.

"They made me redshirt and it was very humbling, very, very humbling," Cardenas said. "I was miserable and I wanted to quit. But my Mom wouldn't let me. I was doing bad in school, because I was so mentally out of it. I was just very immature.

"I started praying and I got closer to God," Cardenas said. "I went to church every Sunday when I was younger, but then I got a little away from it. Growing up and in high school, everything was good, so I didn't need my faith. But right after I got here, things were going wrong. I was doing things I shouldn't have been doing and I was searching for happiness in other places, because I wasn't getting it on the soccer field.

"I was talking to [former teammate Irving Garcia] when he reminded me that God should come first. When he said that, my heart crumbled, because I knew I had been negating God. I asked my Mom to get me a Bible and, for the first time, I started reading it. God provided for me and, mentally, I got in better shape and I started playing again."

After missing nearly a dozen games due to academic ineligibility at the start of his redshirt freshman year, Cardenas eased into a reserve role. He played in nine matches 2010 but did not score a point. He played in 17 matches in 2011 and started 17 in 2012, battling minor injuries that sidelined him briefly each season.

He produced six goals and three assists in 2011, but slopped to two goals and three assists last season, when the Anteaters lost 10 one-goal decisions and finished a disappointing 5-14-1 record, 2-8 in the Big West.

Once again, Cardenas was forced to deal with adversity. Once again, he turned to God.

"Last year was very frustrating for me," Cardenas said. "I had never been part of a losing team or a losing season. I didn't know how to handle it. Now, I truly believe you have to go through down times in order to become better."

Getting better, for Cardenas, began at an Ultimate Training Camp in Fort Collins, Colo, put on by Athletes in Action, a Christian-based organization that reaches out to athletes, primarily at the college level.

"I didn't even want to go, but I ended up going and it was the best experience of my life," Cardenas said of the Athletes in Action camp. "They teach principles of how to glorify God through your sport. That was huge for me, because it took so much pressure off me. I learned how to perform for God, rather than my dad, my family, the fans, the coaches, pro scouts or myself. It was almost as if I had been playing chained up. It was so liberating to go into this season with a mentality that I was leaving it in God's hands. It helped me get my mind right. I've never had more fun playing and I've fallen in love with the game all over again."

With his new outlook, Cardenas has produced five goals and three assists to lead the 'Eaters with 13 points. With Cardenas playing offensive catalyst, UCI takes a 6-3-2 record, 1-1-0 in the Big West Conference, into Friday's home conference game against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at 7 p.m.

The preseason included wins over ranked opponents Louisville (then-No. 16) and UCLA (No. 11 at the time). Cardenas, who has three game-winning goals, converted a pair of penalty kicks in the 3-1 home triumph over the Bruins on Sept. 19.

"If God wants me to play professionally, which hopefully he does, that's great," said Cardenas, who for as long as anyone can remember told anyone who would listen that his only dream was to play pro soccer. "But if not, I'm going to abide by his plan. If I don't become a pro soccer player, I know I am going to be happy."

Cardenas said coaching will definitely be in his future and he may combine that with a teaching career, or try to become a police officer.

For now, the sociology major said he is determined to savor every remaining moment at UCI.

"I'm going to miss this place," he said. "I've learned so many lessons and grown so much throughout my time here. I was excited to come here, but when things weren't going my way, I wanted to leave at the first sign of trouble. I was out of my comfort zone and I hated it. Now, I look for opportunities to step outside my comfort zone, because that is where I have had the most wonderful experiences of my life. Everyone I've met here and everything I've gone through here has made me the person I am today. And I'm happy with who I am."

Happy enough to smile at adversity, even when it occurs on the soccer field.

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