Ismael Rojo Waits For His Chance

Photo: Ismael Rojo was a star with the 2019 MASL2 Champion Sockers2

By Craig Elsten

One of the biggest additions to the San Diego Sockers roster during the summer of 2019 is hoping he will have his chance to impress the Major Arena Soccer League sooner rather than later. Rookie defender Ismael Rojo, fresh off a World Mini-Football Federation World Cup championship in Perth, Australia, has earned his spot on the Sockers club. The question remains: when will he become eligible to play?

“All I can do is wait,” said Rojo after a recent training session, “It has been my dream for years to play for the San Diego Sockers. I know that day is coming, I just don’t know when.”

Between the depth of the Sockers’ back line and the paperwork needed for a Mexican national to become a paid performer in the United States, Rojo has found his debut to be delayed longer than he or the club anticipated. The moment when the 6’3” defender is able to take the field will be a relief for not only himself, but his head coach Phil Salvagio.

“We think the world of ‘Big Rojo’”, Salvagio remarked, “He’s got the skill and the mental toughness to be a major part of our defense this year, and for years to come. Like all young players, he has to wait his turn, and that can be hard sometimes. But we know the future is bright.”

In many ways, Ismael Rojo is more than just a player; he’s the embodiment of the Sockers’ desire to develop talent from within. Identified at an Open Tryout three years ago, Rojo was invited last year to play for San Diego’s developmental squad, Sockers-2. Quickly establishing himself as a dangerous scorer from the back line, Rojo netted twelve goals with six assists (12-6=18 points) in only eleven games played.

“I thank God and (Sockers-2 head coach) Rene Ortiz for the opportunity to perform last year,” said Rojo, “At first I was nervous, but once the games began I felt like I was right at home. We had a great team and with my teammates playing hard, we were able to accomplish our goal of a championship.”

Ortiz, also the head coach of the Mexican National Team for arena soccer and mini-football, took notice of Rojo’s performance, selecting him for three exhibitions during the summer of 2019 against Team USA. Rojo netted a goal with three assists in a 7-2 win over the United States in Boise, Idaho, pushing his name higher up the list.

“As time went on, you just couldn’t ignore the kid’s talent,” said Ortiz of the selection process, “We had other defenders with more experience, even more international experience, but what ‘Big Rojo’ has is special. The speed, the strength, a great shot, and the vision to see over defenders, to run the counter-attack, and to hold the ball under pressure.”

“In the end, I had no choice. I had to take Rojo to Australia.”

The decision paid off. Rojo scored a goal and added two assists as Team Mexico swept their way through Perth, going 7-0 and claiming the WMF World Cup with a 4-0 victory over Brazil in the Grand Final.

“We found we could pick Rojo to mark the other team’s top player, and he would stand right in there and not give an inch,” said Ortiz of Rojo’s performance, “He’s very heady for a young player, and doesn’t panic. By the end of the tournament, we forgot he was a rookie.”

Rojo’s selection to represent his country marked the next step in a long journey from the back fields of Tijuana to the international spotlight. Originally identified in pickup matches south of the border by the Sockers’ Alex Monnar, Rojo has had to fight for every rung he has been able to climb up soccer’s ladder.

“My brother (Manuel, a starter for the Cal Express) and I are very close, and we have supported each other during this journey,” said Rojo, “I was happy when Manuel made the Sockers last year, and I know he is happy for me. We can’t wait for the first time when we play each other on the field. That will be a special day.”

Rojo could only sit in the stands and watch as his brother Manuel scored a hat trick against the Sockers in their season-opening 7-6 loss to the Express.

“It was bittersweet,” said Manuel, “Of course I wanted to be out there, and I wanted our team to win. At the same time, to see my brother having success, and in San Diego where our family and friends can watch, it was very exciting. I’m sure if I was out there, he would have only scored one goal or none!”

When the opportunity will arise for Ismael Rojo is yet to be determined. What is apparent is that when the moment comes, ‘Big Rojo’ will be ready to make a big impact on the field for San Diego.