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Benefield: Sky's the limit for Santa Rosa's 14-year-old soccer phenom Luis Arriaga

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Check out all prep sports stories at PDPreps.com.

Luis Arriaga turned 14 on Jan. 26. Eleven days later, he was on a plane to Madrid as a member of the U.S. U-14 boys national soccer team. Today — exactly 33 days after his 14th birthday — Arriaga will board a flight to Argentina, where he will spend 10 days and play three games representing U.S. club soccer.

Pretty heady stuff for a kid who on Wednesday had to skip his practice with his U-15 United team to do an assignment for his day job: Slater Middle School eighth grader.

“This kid has traveled more than most … and it’s because of the game,” said Ian Mork, former national team coach for Belize who is now a scout for U.S. Soccer and director of scouting for NorCal Premier Soccer.

“The game” is soccer and Arriaga is one of the area’s finest practitioners. At 14.

Arriaga was selected to go to Argentina after shining in a four-day tryout among the nation’s best.

And on the national team squad, Arriaga has been a mainstay.

In the three games in Spain — against Real Madrid, Rayo Vallecano and Extremadura — Arriaga started each contest, playing the full 80 minutes in one match. He shines as either a striker or attacking midfielder.

“He’s as good as I’ve seen in 15 years,” said Kelcey Chaidez, Arriaga’s coach at United. “He’s efficient, no wasted movement. He almost never loses the ball.”

And, then, the ultimate compliment.

“He’s just a footballer,” he said.

When watching talented soccer players, I can sometimes get lulled into a reverie of appreciation — just watching them keep the ball at their feet in tight spaces or thread a pass I couldn’t see. Sometimes that state of watching prevents me from noticing.

Until someone does something just gorgeous.

On Thursday night, watching Arriaga play with the extremely talented U-15 United Arsenal squad, I was jolted to attention by one particular play.

It was in a controlled scrimmage and a rare miss hit had sent the ball high into the air — a death trap for a player of shorter stature, waiting underneath to control it.

But there was Arriaga, shorter than the other two guys vying for the ball, who brought the ball to his feet as if with a glove, while holding off the immediate pressure of two defenders. And hold them off he did, until he decided to score.

Not, mind you, to shoot. Arriago decided to score.

He spun, ball still at his feet, assessed his options with an almost impassive look on his face and then slotted a shot by the keeper calm as you like.

I think I gasped out loud. Chaidez chuckled.

Arriaga has been a footballer since he could stand.

His dad, Luis Sr., put a ball at his feet as a tot just because he loved the game so much. That might have been the first and last time father asked son if he wanted to play. Now they have to tell him to stop.

“I tried because my dad really loved it,” the younger Arriaga said. “But even when I was little I was sleeping with a stuffed soccer ball.”

He is now on about every team he could conceivably join. He plays local club soccer, he plays on a regional select team, he plays on a state select team — albeit always in an age bracket that doesn’t quite match up with his birth certificate.

Check out all prep sports stories at PDPreps.com.

In soccer, Arriaga has been allowed and encouraged to play with older, usually bigger, faster players.

Ben Ziemer, an assistant coach for the squad traveling to Argentina, said Arriaga was selected for this national club team from about 240 hand-picked players through four regional tryouts. The roster’s 18 were named in December.

“He has played more soccer than most people alive in this country from a young age,” Ziemer said.

And while seemingly slight next to older players, Arriaga is not soft.

Ziemer recalled a training session in Oregon where the mercury had soared and the heat coming off the surface of the artificial field was nearly unbearable.

“It was probably 115 on the turf,” he said. “As other people wilted, he just kept pushing and pushing. He has an unbelievable will to compete.”

That intensity, that schedule, is likely to push Arriaga right out of town.

He’s been courted by a pro team in Italy and is currently considering moving on to an MLS soccer academy where he would attend school but train daily with a youth program affiliated with a professional squad.

“From what you hear from people who are successful, it’s never enough,” Luis Arriaga Sr. said of his son’s schedule. “He has a passion. What else can we do as parents?”

Arriaga is clear — this is what he wants.

“I want to be a professional,” he said.

And coaches around here, those who have seen plenty of talent, say Arriaga has the goods.

“Technically, he has spent so much time on his own, it helps him play at a higher speed,” U.S. Soccer’s Mork said. “He’s also very smart; he sees the solution before he receives the ball.”

“He’s got insight far above his age,” Chaidez said, adding that he has to remind himself that the kid just turned 14.

“Sometimes you forget that when you talk to him,” he said.

And every coach I talked to said one particular thing over and over: He’s dying to play.

On Thursday evening, after 90 minutes of sustained, high intensity practice, Chaidez whistled it a night and called the guys into a huddle. From inside the mass of bodies, I heard “Come on, Kelcey, just five more minutes.”

Yup, Arriaga.

“He’s an eternal competitor in everything we do — everything,” Chaidez said.

Arriaga said soccer is what he wants to do. For fun, for a living. Everything.

“You just have to be confident,” he said. “Believe in yourself.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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