Go, Jhonny Go!
Stamford’s Jhonny Arteaga proves being bullish on soccer is a winning formula
photograph courtesy of the New York Red Bulls
When Jhonny Arteaga arrived here from Colombia when he was twelve, he set out to achieve some big goals. Of course, he scored a bunch along the way, and today, the Westhill High School alum is playing his first season with Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls.
“For me, it’s the soccer equivalent of playing for the New York Yankees or Jets,” says Jhonny. “It’s not just one of the best, if not the best team in the league. It’s the home team. There’s nothing better than having family and friends come watch you live. It’s my perfect-world soccer playing scenario.”
It’s heady stuff, but true to this forward’s form, Jhonny’s not satisfied yet. The homegrown athlete, also a bilingual commentator for ESPN Latin America, is already eyeing a place at the top of the Bulls roster, already populated with some of the world’s best players, including Mexico’s Rafa Marquez, a close friend.
That’s exactly the kind of bullish determination that’s propelled Jhonny forward since he left his hometown of Cali, with his parents and older sister, to start over in Fairfield County. Jhonny had lived a comfortable, middle class life in Cali, where he grew up playing soccer for his school and “driving my mother completely crazy kicking soccer balls around the house. That’s how into it I was.”
But when his dad lost his job and his family immigrated to Greenwich to be near relatives and chase American prosperity, his aspirations went foul. “The one thing I had and needed my whole life was the soccer ball, and I didn’t have it. I had immigrant parents living in the most American town there is. There was a language barrier. Finding a soccer team for me wasn’t a simple thing.”
When he finally did join a Greenwich town team, Jhonny made an impression in his very first game. After blasting past the “American kids with a whole bunch of goals” he was plucked from the sidelines by Aldwin St. George, founder of the Norwalk-based training academy Soccer with Aldwin. When Aldwin, whom Jhonny considers a friend and mentor, invited him to join his elite travel team, Jhonny’s youth career took off.
After his family permanently settled in Stamford, Jhonny ended up at Westhill (after attending Dolan Middle School and Stamford High), where he played under former boys’ coach Mark Lukas. It was Lukas, Jhonny says, who inspired him to pursue a collegiate career. “I wasn’t a star or the best player, but he really believed I could do it.” Jhonny started for Dominican College, a small Division II school that soccer-wise “is on no one’s radar.” But he managed to stand out anyway. “I didn’t have much fun in college. I was so serious about soccer, all I did was train and train. But that’s kind of how I am. When I want something, I just work harder for it than everyone else.” Jhonny was named Center Atlantic Collegiate Conference Player of the Year during his senior year.
Turning pro was more of a long shot for Jhonny, who has spent several years coaching the U-10 boys for Darien Youth Soccer while pursuing his own dream. “I would train all day and coach at night. It was exhausting, but it was necessary.” Dissatisfied playing for the minor league Western Mass Pioneers, Jhonny headed for Poland in 2010 to play for Lomza, a team in that country’s minor division. He was considering joining an Ecuadorian franchise a year later when he decided to make an aggressive push for a pro career stateside: “This is my home. As much as I love soccer, I didn’t want to live in hotel rooms away from my family.” He caught the attention of the Red Bulls when he played against them for the minor league FC New York during the 2011 U.S. Open Cup. They offered him a career-making tryout.
While Jhonny’s been busy training and playing with the Red Bulls in their Secaucus, New Jersey, base, he remains true to his Stamford roots. He and his wife, Liliana Ulloa, visit often. “The Latin American community here is close-knit and everyone knows me somehow.”
Meanwhile he’s bringing his signature JA Elite Soccer Academy to the city this month for a weeklong camp, a collaboration with Stamford Youth Soccer. “Our whole philosophy is skills-based,” he explains. “I’m not interested in how fast you can run at twelve. I worry more about things like ball handling. The other things can come later.”
In the meantime, Jhonny considers himself a “little on the old side” to be starting his Red Bulls career. His challenge now is getting playing time with the likes of veteran star forwards such as American Kenny Cooper and France’s Thierry Henry dominating the field. "These guys are world champions and they are great mentors. They encourage me and tell me I can improve. Hearing that from them is absolutely incredible, and I just can’t wait to get on the field to play better. “I’m in a great position. I have some of the best forwards in the world in front of meand I can only learn from them.” Consider it just another big goal that Jhonny plans to score.