Hitting the big time

Yahir Paez, left, and Jeremiah Zuniga, right, were among 13 local soccer players who were invited to try out for the Atlanta United youth academy teams last week. Paez and Zuniga were the only two selected.

Whitfield and Murray counties have developed a reputation for producing soccer talent. Now two local products will get the chance to display their skills for a professional club.

Yahir Paez and Jeremiah Zuniga were among 13 local soccer players who were invited to try out for the Atlanta United Academy, the youth development program for the upstart Major League Soccer club Atlanta United Football Club that will begin play in March 2017.

With hundreds of players trying out from all across the state, Paez and Zuniga were selected and will begin training next month.

Before they take the pitch for the 2017 season, Atlanta United FC had to begin setting up its feeder programs. At the urging of Dalton State College director of soccer Kerem Daser, officials associated with the club came to Dalton to assess some of the local talent and came away impressed.

“I invited Rodrigo Rios, a very good friend of mine who is a scout at Atlanta United, to come to Dalton,” Daser said. “We played together for the Atlanta Silverbacks and he and (Atlanta United academy manager) Tony Annan came out. They could not believe the level of players and the facilities. Two weeks later (academy director) Richard Money came too and he was very excited.”

The result was that 13 players participated in an invitation only ID session. In addition to Paez and Zuninga, current Dalton stars Isai Hernandez, Omar Hernandez, Churrui Huitanda and Ivan Mora also participated. Others included Ricardo Bahena, Jamie Mendiola, Fabian Navarro, Elisel Padilla, Miguel Perez, Danny Quintero and Antony Ramirez.

Zuniga, 14, is a central attacking midfielder who will be a freshman at Dalton High School in the fall. He is still relishing the joy of having been accepted into the program and is thankful for those who have helped him get to this point.

“It’s a great opportunity for all of the players that were selected,” Zuniga said. “To get to play with all of those guys is a great feeling. I’m proud of myself and thank God and my coaches for helping me get to this point.”

Daser said that he was pretty confident going into the tryout that Zuniga would be selected, having first-hand knowledge of not only his soccer abilities, but his other talents as well.

“They told me that Jeremiah was the best center midfielder they had seen,” Daser said. “I knew before he was probably going to be picked. For two years I’ve been doing free clinics and he has never missed a session. He is like me and (Dalton State assistant coach) Rene’s Hispanic son. A lot of 14-year-olds that good may think they don’t need to train.

“He is the most unselfish, coachable and encouraging kid. I think he could make the national team. I also saw a video where he was playing the piano and he is amazing at that too. I think he could be the next great American pianist, he could be president of the United States or he could be the next (U.S. men’s national team star) Clint Dempsey. He’s just great at everything he does.”

Paez, 12, is a left winger with a strong shot. He is going into the seventh grade at Dalton Middle School, but already the Atlanta United scouts see him potentially filling a particular role on the team thanks to his leg strength and ability to create opportunities from the wing.

“He is a left-footed player that drops bombs,” Daser said. “He has good size, good pace and they like him as a left wing. He needs to keep working on his speed and his work rate needs to improve. But he can crush the ball. I’ve seen him score from over 30 yards away.”

Paez said he has seen a lot of talented players growing up in Dalton and playing travel soccer, but that the level of competition at the tryout was a different experience that he enjoyed.

“It was a great experience,” Paez said. “All the players were really good. I enjoyed playing with guys from other cities. I’ve seen a lot of good players, but to have them all in one place like that was really cool.”

Both Paez and Zuniga said their favorite player was Lionel Messi and their favorite soccer club was Real Madrid. But they both also have role models closer to home.

“Churrui Huitanda and Isai Hernandez, they are the dynamic duo,” Zuniga said. “I’ve seen a lot of great things from them.”

Daser said he was surprised none of the older players were selected, but said they should be encouraged as well, especially considering the experiences of one of his former players.

“The four kids from Dalton High School were all very close to being selected,” Daser said. “They should all be encouraged and motivated to get better. There are others in this area that could be selected in the future. I used to coach Clint Dempsey and he never made one of the U.S. youth national teams. Now he is one of the two or three best players to have ever played for the senior team.”

Paez and Zuniga will get their chance to shine for their new club and for the Catamounts at Harmon Field in the coming seasons. In the meantime, Paez’s coach on his Dalton Parks and Recreation Department team, Hugo Alverado, said he hopes other players follow in their footsteps.

“All of the kids around here need to learn from more professionals,” Alverado said. “Of course we are very proud of (Paez of Zuniga) and the next group of kids can make it too. Right now they have great examples in Yahir and Jeremiah. The other kids are going to want it too.”

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