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West Hall grad excited to start pro soccer career
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Virginia Commonwealth University senior Juan Arbelaez, right, a West Hall high graduate, was selected by the Montreal Impact in the third round of the Major League Soccer supplemental draft Tuesday. - photo by For The Times

Juan Arbelaez dreamed of being a professional soccer player while watching his father, a former pro, play the game back home in Pereira, Columbia.

That dream has followed him through his family’s move to Georgia just before high school, his time as a star on a West Hall High team that reached the finals, and his collegiate soccer career.

Now it’s a reality.

The Virginia Commonwealth University senior was selected Tuesday by Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact in the third round of the supplemental draft, and he’s already preparing for the next step.

Yet the magnitude of his being on the cusp of playing professionally still hasn’t completely sunk in.

“I’m still like wow,” he said. “It hasn’t hit me completely.”

It may be because he’s so busy with the preparations. He’s still working out details with his current US residency, and until then — a process Arbelaez said could take around six months — he’s not able to leave the country.

So before he can show his skills in Montreal, he plans to play for a United Soccer Leagues team to stay sharp and prove to the second-year MLS team that it made the right decision in drafting the 5-foot-8, 145-pound midfielder.

Arbelaez has not yet officially signed with Montreal, but is in the process.

“I’m excited to do it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing well and getting to Montreal and doing well.

“I was really happy knowing that all the work I put in the last six years paid off.”

Arbelaez has certainly put in the work. It all started back in Columbia, where he learned from his father, who has played in the second division of Columbian professional soccer years before.

“My dad, watching him play was an inspiration,” he said. “I went to his games as a child and I wanted to be like him — he’s who really got me into it.”

Arbelaez sees his time playing the game in Columbia as beneficial to his future successes in the sport. He said to learned to play the fast-paced passing game South American players are known for, and against talented and passionate opponents.

He added that it didn’t take him long to adapt to playing alongside the more physical American style.

His work on the pitch proved it. Arbelaez finished his high school career with 51 goals and 71 assists and was named The Times All-Area Player of the Year as a senior after leading the Spartans to a state final appearance.
He remembers being hurt early in the postseason run, but coming back in the semifinal game and helping get West Hall to the final before falling to St. Pius X.

“Before the semifinal I woke up and felt better and played, scored a goal and we won,” he said. “We lost in finals, but it was still a good run.”

He certainly hasn’t been forgotten in Oakwood.

“That’s big news for us,” West Hall athletic director Scott Justus said Wednesday, soon after receiving the news that the former Spartans’ star had been drafted the day before.

Arbelaez went to Georgia Perimeter College after graduation — recording eight goals and 11 assists as a freshman — before transferring to VCU, where he started 20 of 21 games last season as a senior and recorded four assists for a Rams team that won 12 games, made the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 25 in the NCSAA poll.

He said his time in Richmond, Va. has made him a far better player.

“I’ve improved a lot, especially when I came to VCU,” Arbelaez said. “Here everybody can play.”

To prove the point, he was one of two Rams drafted by the MLS this season, along with Jason Johnson, selected 13th overall in the Superdraft by the Houston Dynamo. Arbelaez said he most likely would have been drafted in one of the two rounds of the Superdraft the week prior were it not for his still unsettled residency status.

As it is, he had expected Kansas City, New England or Washington D.C. — all teams that had contacted him earlier — to select him in the draft. It was only late in the process that the Impact contacted him, Arbelaez said.

But he said he’s happy to get the chance to play in yet another country.

Really, he’s just happy to get to keep playing the sport he fell in love with long ago in his native Columbia.

“Since I was seven that was my dream,” he said. “Ever since I started playing that’s what I knew I wanted to do.”

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