When Julian Araujo joined the Galaxy 11 months ago, he spoke in halting, tentative sentences that often ended before he had finished his thought.
In other words, he spoke like just every other 17 year old.
Nearly a year later, after 18 MLS appearances, a U-20 World Cup and a call-up to the senior national team, that timidity is gone, replaced by the knowledge that he is where he belongs.
“I’m definitely grown,” said Araujo, who now punctuates his comments with a smile instead of a shrug. “I’ve grown on the field, off the field. Every day is a new day to get better. At everything.”
He’ll get a chance to take another big step forward Saturday afternoon when the U.S. soccer team opens 2020 against Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park, the stadium where Araujo made his professional debut. A U.S. Soccer spokesman said approximately 6,500 tickets had been sold as of Friday morning.
A good portion of that “crowd” will be Araujo’s friends and family members, many of whom made the same drive down from Lompoc last March when he played his first game for the Galaxy. There’s no guarantee Araujo will even suit up for the U.S. game, much less play in his first international game at the senior level. But his mother, who came to the U.S. from Zacatecas, Mexico, has her fingers crossed.
“That’s a dream of his. But it’s also a dream of ours to see him represent his country,” she said.
Lupe Araujo, a translator with the Lompoc Unified School District, credits her son’s new-found maturity not to the successes of the last year but to the one searing defeat.
Araujo, a right back, was left off the original U.S. roster for the U-20 World Cup. Then, after being added as a late injury replacement, he was one of two field players who failed to get off the bench.
Whether through coincidence or renewed commitment, Araujo came back from that tournament a different player, starting five of his next six games with the Galaxy and picking up his first MLS assist with a brilliant, if difficult, over-the-shoulder pass to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“The first disappointment of not making it to that first roster, that’s what made [him] grow up and be a little more mature,” Lupe Araujo said. “We saw the change, how much he grew.”
Now he has a chance to add to that. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter called Araujo into the first training camp of the year both to audition for the senior national team as well as to try out for the team that will play in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in March.
The U.S. has qualified for the Olympics, an age-restricted competition, just once since 2000.
“We were looking for a very dynamic fullback. A player that’s able to join the attack aggressively, good capacity to run, good top speed, tenacious defense,” Berhalter said. “And Julian fit that profile.
“We know he’s a young player. We know he still needs to develop. [But] for such a young player, he’s a student of the game. He wants to continually learn and continue to get better. We’ve been really impressed with him.”
The last year has been a whirlwind for Araujo, one that started with him playing for the Galaxy’s youth academy and ended with an invitation to train with the full national team. And while it was a journey he has long planned for, the speed at which the last stretch unfolded was unseen.
“It’s every kid’s dream,” said Araujo who, at 18, is still a kid. “I’m doing what I always dreamed of. But yeah, of course it’s been really crazy. I don’t believe it at times. Everything has come so fast.”
And taken so long. Because the last year in the spotlight was preceded by long years of lonely sacrifice for everyone in Araujo’s family.
His mother, who assumed the task of driving him two hours a day from Lompoc to elite training camps and team practices, estimated her son played a game nearly every weekend since the age of 5, often sleeping in his uniform the night before to make sure he wouldn’t be late. His father Jorge, a truck driver who would leave for work before dawn and be asleep when Julian returned from practice around midnight, saw so little of his son he would often sneak into his bedroom to give the sleeping boy a kiss on the forehead.
But Julian never lost sight of his goal. As a 9 year old, he came home from a tournament in England with clumps of grass buried in his backpack, motivation to get good enough to someday play on grass like that.
His mother washed the backpack and threw the grass out.
The sacrifices didn’t go unnoticed though. When Julian finished elementary school, the principal recognized him with a special award as the student most likely to play in the World Cup.
“We wanted, with our hearts, for his dream to come true. But there’s so many great players that want to achieve that dream,” Lupe Araujo said. “We still pinch ourselves to believe it. You know, like is it really happening?”
It is. Yet even if Araujo makes his national team debut Saturday it won’t be the end of the dream, just another step along the way.
“It will definitely be something big and a goal to check off,” he said. “But I have many goals that I want to reach.”