Jose Cuevas: ‘You’ve got to be the best’

Jose Cuevas: ‘You’ve got to be the best’
Jose Cuevas

Jose Cuevas

Jose Cuevas talks a bit like he plays. You give Charleston’s creative ace a little room, kick it over his way, and off the goes, spotting connections, drawing things together. He’s a lively conversationalist with an expressive face, the kind of storyteller who speaks fast, unspooling words in a staccato stream, repeating phrases energetically as if to absorb the excess force building up behind them. 

Cuevas is an interesting figure for multiple reasons, not all of them directly related to his play on the field. He went pro in Mexico directly out of high school in rural California. When things didn’t work out there, he returned home determined to plot a course from PDL to MLS. After logging two seasons with the Fresno Fuego, Cuevas signed with Charleston in 2012. His play earned him the league’s Rookie of the Year award – and the assist on the game-winning goal in the USL PRO Championship.

Though considered a likely MLS target in the off-season, Cuevas returned in February for a second year. He was often spectacular this spring, scoring eight goals in 12 preseason matches before an injury knocked him out of the regular-season opener. Cuevas spent April and May rehabbing and working his way back into form. Since his return, he’s played as a lone forward, a central attacking midfielder, an outside midfielder, and as a strike-partner for Dane Kelly.

Though he admits he’s still not 100 percent recovered, Cuevas has re-established himself as one of the league’s elite talents, earning multiple Team of the Week mentions and helping lead the Battery’s late-summer resurgence. Despite that success, Thursday night’s match against the Los Angeles Blues is sure to be one of his most memorable of 2013 – because roughly 50 people from his home town are expected to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to UC Irvine to watch him play. 

Cuevas, who goes by the nickname “Chiva” (Spanish for “goat”), sat down for an interview on July 8 at the Subway on Daniel Island. I’d always wanted to hear his story. I pass it on here, with minimal editing. – dc

Tell me about your childhood.

Jose as a preschooler. Though fluent in English today, he grew up in a Mexican-American family where English was never spoken.

As a preschooler, Cuevas split time between his parent’s home in California and his grandparents’ home in Jalisco, Mexico. Like many first-generation Mexican-Americans, his identity is split between the two. “I’ll be honest. There are times when you’re not liked here, because you’re Mexican, and you’re not liked in Mexico, because you’re American.”

I was born in Visalia, California, but I was pretty much raised by my grandparents. They would take me to Mexico for months. Three to six months. I’d come back for a month, visit my family, my parents, and then go back again. And I would do that back and forth until I was the age of 5, in kindergarten. That’s when I started staying in school. And every summer I would go to Mexico.

Where did they live?

A small ranch named La Pila. It means “battery.” It’s just off a saint, San Jose de la Pila. It’s kinda weird how I’m from La Pila and now I’m playing for the Battery.

My dad’s name is Jose Luis Cuevas, so I’m a junior. And my mom is Rosa Eleana Ruiz. They met in California, and ever since then, they’ve been (in the United States). My mom’s a citizen now. My dad is too macho to become a citizen, you know, old-school and like “Oh, no, no, I’m Mexican.” But it is what it is.

They just worked really hard. That’s all they would do. So our grandparents, my dad’s parents, they pretty much raised us. They were the ones who would take me to Mexico, back-and-forth, back-and-forth.

My grandparents pretty much were the ones who would go to my games as a kid. My dad never went to my games. I remember some guy told him at the store, “Hey, are you going to go watch your kid’s game tonight?” He was all like “Oh, I didn’t know he was playing.” And I remember being on the field and I saw him out of nowhere in the stands. I’m like, “What is he doing here?” you know? And it felt good. I’m getting chills in my body because I remember just seeing him and I remember I played a really good game and it was against a hard team, Ever since then he went to every single high school game.

He’s a trucker, but at the time he was in the fields. He would pick oranges, he would pick peaches, everything. Whatever it would take, just to get the payments done. So whenever I would ask him for money, it would be rough. But he would still manage. My grandparents, they helped me out a lot. They’re the ones who would buy me my soccer shoes.

I would go to the Sunday League games where my dad and my uncle used to play. I used to always be the kid in the back, getting the ball and kicking it toward the goal.

All my family is tall – 6-4, 6-2. My brother’s 6-1, my dad’s 6-1. I’m the smallest one out of all my family, and when I see my uncle being a keeper and stuff, the way he would dive, he was hands-down one of the best keepers I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’m 5-7. I was always shorter in every single game. And I made it worse because I would always play three years ahead of (my age group). So if I was 10, I’d play with 13- or 14-year-olds.

So as a kid I started off as a keeper, and then the coach, in the second half, would take me out on the field and let me do my thing. And once I got to the age of about 9 or 10, the coaches were like “You need to be on the field. You’re doing good stuff,” but I was like “Argh! I like to be goalie!” So whenever we would get up by a huge amount, you know, three or four goals, then I would go play goalie and do my thing.

And then I realized I was going to be short, and I was like, “Alright, maybe I’ll be on the field (laughs).”

jose-first-communion-web

Jose (bottom right) with his parents and younger brother, Diego (lower left) after celebrating his first communion in Farmersville.

It was scary sometimes playing in front of my dad when I was younger, even if it was in my yard. Because he would always demand perfection. “You know what? You need to do this, you need to do that, every time you step on the field you gotta be the best player. You’ve got to be the best player, you’ve got to have that mentality.” So every time I stepped on the field, even if they were older than me, I wanted to prove to them that I was better.

I know sometimes that can be a bad thing, because it can be disrespectful to others, but it just stuck in my head, and that’s what I tend to do.

(My father) was a step from being pro. He was a center defensive mid. He had a rocket of a shot, very strong, his passing was incredible. And he was always just power-everything. And he wouldn’t like it because I was different. I’m more of a technique and calm guy. It kinda bugged him, until he saw how soccer was changing.

Fortunately, when I was 16 years old, he put me on his adult league team and said “Come on (and) get some experience off the older guys.” So he was sweeper at the time and I was midfield, and it was really good, because he was still good. He would knock a 40-yard ball in to me and I was just like “This guy is the man.”

I remember one time he came up to me and he was like “You know what? It’s amazing when I pass you the ball an you do what you do.”

And that’s one thing, everywhere you go, whether you’re Asian-American, Mexican, you want your parents to be proud of you. So it hit a spot where I was just like, “I want to keep making him proud. I want to keep making my family proud, keep making my last-name proud.”

Any brothers or sisters?

I have younger brother (Diego). He’s 21, and to be honest, man, he was a great player. He was better than me. He was a center defensive mid, and he was just magic. A tall guy, 6-1. Except he didn’t like the fact that people would compare him to me in the scoring and assisting type of way, where people didn’t see that he’s a Jarad van Schaik, you know? He just couldn’t handle that anymore, and in high school, when he was a junior, he just stopped completely.

It kinda bummed me out… because I loved hearing ”Oh yeah, the Cuevas brothers,” and things like that. And when he stopped playing, I kinda got sad. But I mean, I realized it was his choice, you know?

He was at a warehouse where I was working, so when I came here, I gave him pretty much my job. And he just got into it with bad friends and made poor choices. Me and my family, we got together and we were like, “We’ve got to do something about this,” you know? Me and my older sister, Ruby, finally (we) were like, “Let’s send him away from this town.” So my sister lives near San Francisco, in Pleasant Hill, and we put him up there. And so right now he’s just been working and stuff.

Cuevas (left) and his older sister Ruby, in an after-concert photo with one of their favorite mariachi singers, taken when Jose was in elementary school. Today Ruby is 27 and working on a PhD in psychology.

Cuevas (left) and his older sister Ruby, in an after-concert photo with one of their favorite mariachi singers, taken when Jose was in elementary school. Today Ruby is a 27-year-old college graduate working toward a PhD in psychology.

My sister just graduated from (the University of California at) Berkeley last year. She worked really, really hard. We’re so proud of her, because when she was 18, (she and her husband got pregnant with their first child), and (Ruby) was still going to school. My dad put it in (her head that), “Whatever you do, you have to be the best,” and that’s the way she is.

So she did community colleges and things like that, got her transcript to Berkeley, they accepted her, and then she just worked her butt off. She’s going to go back to school to get her – what’s it called? Sorry, I’m not good with colleges because I never went. Her masters. And what’s after masters? Her PhD, yeah. She’s working on all that right now. And I’m trying to do the best I can in every way to make it to the highest level, so we can get something started with that. We’re all coming together as a family, just to get ahead.

I have a baby brother, 3 years old. Aidan Fabian Cuevas. Yeah, my parents got bored (laughs)! He’s 21 years younger than me, and yeah, man, that kid’s special. He’s huge! He’s like three-fourths of my body already.

The stereotype of Mexican families is that they’re all about family. Is there truth to that?

It’s in different ways that families comes together. Some families come together in like “OK, every Sunday after church.” Us, we’re a little different. We never came together until my baby brother was born. He was like a gift from God, straight saying that “Hey, you need to unite.” So that’s what we’ve been doing, and my aunts and uncles as well.

So I mean, it’s different in every Latino family, but for the most part, yeah, it’s like “Try to stay together.”

Did you grow up speaking English or Spanish?

It was zero English, for the first five years, to be honest.

My parents speak it. But they decided not to speak it (in public) because of their accents. My mom, she can speak it. My dad can speak it well. But like I said, he’s a macho, old-school guy. But I worked with him for a little bit and I would hear him talk English to his boss.

We had an American family that lived next door to us, and like, she would call me “Mee-ho,” because that’s what my mom would call me. “Mi hijo (In Spanish: “my son”), come here!” So (the American woman) would call me ‘Mee-ho’

My sister was good friends with her, so my sister learned English pretty fast. She would kinda translate to me. But all the kids, my generation, all the kids – Spanish, Spanish, Spanish. Going to school, that’s what happened to a couple of the guys. They couldn’t get scholarships because their English wasn’t that good.

Cuevas takes the field in Orlando in July 2013. Though he didn't always understand his father's relentless message of hard work, the lesson took hold. "I see it now. It's not just to work. It's to teach you certain values."

Cuevas takes the field in Orlando in July 2013. Though he didn’t always appreciate his father’s relentless emphasis on hard work, the lesson took hold. “I see it now. It’s not just to work. It’s to teach you certain values.”

My dad took me to work with him after high school. He told me “You wanna do this, or are you going to get yourself together and do your soccer?” He took me to the fields, picked peaches and stuff like that, in the heat. He took me to where he works now – he’s a trucker – and that’s where I would ride on the tractor, all day in the heat. He goes “It’s either you do your soccer, or you come here. You figure it out (laughs).

Soccer!

Even in the summer he’s all like, “You gotta work, you gotta work.” And part of me felt like “Why does he make me have to work?” You know, you want your kids to have better. That’s the whole point. So I kinda started questioning it.

I would go off on him. “Why? Why do I need to work if I need to focus on my soccer?” And he was just “Go work, go work.”

And I see it now. It’s not just to work. It’s to teach you certain values. So like, my dad, he was a great father in a weird way, if that makes sense. He was kinda like, in a sneaky way. Not the front of the book, but you have to look into it.

Where are you from?

Farmersville_Logo_webI grew up in a little town called Farmersville. At the time it was like 7,000, 8,000 people. Right now it’s 10,000. It’s crazy, because every morning, like 4 or 5 o’clock, you see people down the street picking up friends to go to the fields to work. Now it’s a little bit different. People got promotions and different jobs.

To be fair, there’s a lot of talent in my little town. Some guys have it, some guys don’t, because some guys decide they want this, and they go for it. Some guys they want to get it, but work gets in the way. Kids get in the way. Things happen.

Local soccer entrepreneur Kenyon Cook told me to ask some of the suburban youth soccer players here if they ever get together for unsupervised pickup games. And when I did, they didn’t know what I was talking about. Did you grow up playing pickup soccer?

That’s exactly what I grew up in. Ever since I was small, my cousin would come over with his brother, and my brother, we would play two-on-two. We would go to the park hoping there’s more kids, and you could tell the kids that wanted to play, because they would sit and watch.

We would say “Hey, you want in?” You know, “Jump in! Jump in! Oh, it’s five players? That’s OK, one of us will be goalie, the others two-versus-two.” So it would be like “You score, you get to be goalie.” And that’s the way we did it.

We’d be in the streets, because my dad (laughs) – I know this sounds stereotypical, but he loves his landscaping! He loves his lawn. And he would be like “Get off!” And so we’d go on the street. Our neighbor had two mailboxes that you could kinda move. And so we’d put them together to make goals, and the fences would be the other goals. We’d just play – “Boom-boom-boom-CAR!’ Move up, go again. “Boom-boom-boom-CAR!’ Wait up. Go again.

There’s a big push in U.S. soccer to emphasize player development in the academies now, even at a young age.

I never played on any kind of academies until I hit almost 17 years old. That’s when I met Cody (Ellison, Charleston’s starting center back). I met Cody in the academy, and every since then, Cody and me have been on the same team.

Though he credits coaching and academy training for rounding him into a complete player, Cuevas says that when he gets the ball at his feet in the attack, what happens next is "straight street."

Though he credits coaching and academy training for rounding him into a complete player, Cuevas says that when he gets the ball at his feet in the attack, what happens next is “straight street.”

That was my first time playing high-level soccer. I would always play in leagues that were just local. But in the academy, I traveled the nation. And it was expensive. But Chad McCarty, who is, I guess you could say, my agent now, he helped me through all that. He paid for me, he helped me through everything.

He’s in Fresno. That’s an hour. So I would drive an hour to training every day or every other day. It was really tough. The academy was hard, but it was worth it. I liked it.

How much of your game – the style of play we see at Blackbaud Stadium – comes from your streetball background, versus your academy training?

I think the academy teaches you how to defend properly, you know, and set pieces, those things that they put up on the board.

But once I get the ball at my feet, the rest of it is just instinct. You know what I mean? The final third, I get the ball, it’s just straight-street for me. Like whatever comes out of it. If I take two on, if I dribble, shoot, if I one-two, things like that. From there, it’s just fun.

aztecsWas soccer big at your high school?

Huge. Most people say football (is big). Ours was futbol.

Farmersville High School. We were the Aztecs. Five hundred students. We do Division 1 through 6. So we’re the last one – Division 6. Soccer was the only successful sport back when I was in high school.

I coach there now.

Back when I was in high school, my freshman year, I remember we won what’s called the Valley Title, because we’re in the Central Valley. They didn’t have state championships back then, so Valley was the highest you could get. And I got it as a freshman on the varsity. Sophomore and junior year, we made it to semis, and my senior year, we got it again. I had a pretty good year that year.

I was the captain, the leader, center attacking mid. But I just roamed everywhere. Just “Go get the ball and just do it.” We had 26 games that year and I ended up scoring 32 goals and 29 assists.

We’ve had a couple of good (players to come out of Farmersville High). We had this player who, his junior and senior year, he had 72 goals. His name is Jose Calderon, and right now, he’s just working. Like I said, there was never any kind of academy, never any kind of scouts, anything like that. There’s a goalkeeper of ours, Jose Chon Martinez, my best friend. He played in the academy. Cody knows him. Great goalkeeper. Could have been anywhere. But he decided to get married. And he just stopped.

What opportunities came your way after your senior season? 

At that time we were doing showcases with the academy. I grew a lot – soccer-wise, not height (laughs). And that summer we had a lot of showcases, and like, college scouts. You’re not going to believe, but like Harvard University. Holy Cross. Santa Barbara. They were like, “You’ve got the grades. We’re going to keep tabs on you.”

But me, I was on top of the world. “I’m not going to any school, I’m going to Mexico to go pro.”

cruz azulSo I went to Mexico, and after a month or two I was like “Man, I’m homesick, they’re not offering me a good contract.” I was 17.

It was Cruz Azul, but it was Division 2, so kinda like the Battery. affiliated with a certain team, things like that. Colima liked me. Cruz Azul was even more impressed. They were like “We’re going to sign you to train with the first team. The money is not all that great, but if you sacrifice this year and do well, then you’ll go.” They were offering me $200 a month. And it was really tough, and I’m just like, “I’m alone here at this hotel, and I don’t know what to do. So I’m just going to try MLS.”

So I went back. I turned all my (scholarship) offers down. Some of them were full rides. I don’t want to say it was the biggest mistake of my life, but it was a pretty huge mistake.

There’s a lot of talk about whether the US system of sending top players to college instead of into the lower professional leagues is really serving the development of our players. What do you think?

It’s hard to say. College is definitely different from the pros. A lot of college is, “Let’s just get the ball up and hope for the best. Let’s run. We have athletes,” you know?

There’s this kid I’m working with back home, I see a lot of talent in him. It’s sad to say, but I’m telling him the best way to do it is to just go to college, and then get drafted from there. And he goes, “College soccer, it’s not the same. I want to go pro right after and get better.” And I’m like, “You could do it that way. But if you’re getting a full ride somewhere, it’s kinda hard to turn it down.”

Over the last two years, MLS has really started to emphasize homegrown players over the SuperDraft. But that option wasn’t really available for your generation of players.

That’s what made it hard to even get a trial with a pro team.

I saw myself playing pro ever since I was a kid. Once I started hitting 16 and 17 years old, I’m just like “Man, how am I going to get an opportunity? There’s nothing around here.” I had to drive for an hour just to get a look.

150px-FfuegonewI worked for gas money, pretty much. I was at a car wash, me and my best friend Chuno. We’d do our best, and then on weekends, just use that money to go to Fresno (when I was in the academy). When I was with Fresno Fuego, in the PDL, that was even harder, because I had to do my own thing. So I would wake up at 5 in the morning, get my stuff together, like lunch, stuff for soccer. Be at work by 6. Work from 6 to 3 p.m., if not overtime. And then we would have training at 6 p.m. in Fresno, which was still an hour’s drive.

We would finish around 8:30, and I would go get some fast food, whatever it was, and then come home, get home maybe 10 o’clock, shower up, watch a little TV, and asleep by 11:30. Sometimes, if I was having a little trouble sleeping, maybe 12 o’clock. Wake up at 5 again, and do it all over. I was 18, 19.

Which league did you care about more as a kid: Liga MX or MLS? 

Liga MX. My dad, and his friends, they were all about it. Chivas (Guadalajara). They would always follow them and they’d be like “Oh, one day you’ll be there.”’ Now, looking back, I like MLS. I like MLS a lot. I’d rather play in MLS than in Mexico.

So you seem to have this Mexican identity, and this American identity. How do you manage the two in your head? 

Cuevas attends the graduation of his cousin, Nancy Cuevas. Family remains a foremost concern for him. "it's different in every Latino family, but for the most part, yeah, it's like 'Try to stay together.'”

Cuevas attends the graduation of his cousin, Nancy Cuevas. Family remains a foremost concern for him. “it’s different in every Latino family, but for the most part, yeah, it’s like ‘Try to stay together.’”

It’s hard, man, because obviously, my roots are Mexican. But at the same time, I was born here. I’m American. A lot of people would be like “Oh no, you’re Mexican. Don’t change.” I’m like “I can’t change! I was born here!” I have dual citizenship, so I can play for either nation.

It’s kinda hard when Mexico and USA play. When I’m with my family, they’re all “Mexico! Mexico!” I’m like “Yay! Yay!” (laughs) So whenever they play, I just watch. I don’t root for a certain team.

It’s really hard. I’ll be honest. There are times when you’re not liked here, because you’re Mexican, and you’re not liked in Mexico, because you’re American. They call me “Pocho,” which is saying, excuse my language, but calling me a wetback in my own country. So it’s hard.

So have you experienced more racism in California, where there are lots of Mexicans and the battle lines are kind of drawn, or here in the Southeast, where there’s a growing Hispanic population, but it’s not as visible?

Though Cuevas' game isn't overtly physical, he doesn't back down from contact and confrontation.

Though Cuevas’ game isn’t overtly physical, he doesn’t back down from contact and confrontation.

Obviously, in my little town, you can’t be racist when 98 percent of it is Mexican. But once I hit the academy, other leagues, the professional PDL, things like that, I started seeing more racism. Between players, between fans. I hear fans, ‘Ah, burrito!’ and this and that.

Me personally, I can let things go. It doesn’t hurt me. You can be as racist as you want to me. I can control my temper. Even between players, there are times when someone calls me something Mexican-related, and they’re being racist? I’m like “You better expect it back.”

How did that racial and cultural divide in California affect your family?

My dad, he has stories of how that racism hit him, how hard-working they were.

Even when I would mow the lawn, if I did it even a pace slow, he would be like “Get on it. Get on it. You’ve got to work hard.” He’d be like “What are you doing? Are you asleep, or what?” So I always had that mentality.

Coming back to racism, (there were) times when my dad would work the fields, and by the end of the time, when they were done and they were going to give him the check, the bosses would call the immigration, and so they would get left with nothing. So my dad would work two or three weeks with no pay.

All the people back then, they would come over with a purpose. Nowadays, there are some people who come over and just do dumb things. Easy money, bring drugs over. And I hate that, because it gives some Mexicans a bad name. And it sucks, because the hard-working Mexicans that come over and try to do their best for the kids, it’s giving them a bad name, too. So it’s a tough situation.

You’ve become a fan favorite here in Charleston. How long did it take before you began to feel that appreciation from the stands?

Mike Anhaeuser

Mike Anhaeuser

I think it was maybe a little after bit after when people started interviewing me. It was kinda hard, because the first thing they would interview me about was “Do you think Coach Mike Anhaeuser made a mistake the year before when he sent you back to the PDL?” And it was a tough situation because the only thing I could answer was, “I respect what he says.” The guy has two championships in three years. You can’t say anything about that. He’s good at what he does. And so he told me I needed a year at Fuego and just to be more mature about my soccer.

It kinda helped me out, though, because when I came back, I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to make a statement. Because Coach, he signed me for a reason, and I’m not going to let him down.” So whenever the Challenge Cup came up, I’m like, ‘This is the place to start, against MLS sides, to show them what I’m really about.’ And I got two goals and two assists in two games.

That’s when people started coming up to me and going “So how do you think we’re going to do this year?” And I told the athletic trainer, Bobby (Weisenberger), and all them, “You know what? I’m going to be Rookie of the Year. I’m going to work for it, I’m going to do everything I can to be rookie of the year.”

What did that Rookie of the Year award mean to your family?

It was big-time. My dad especially. When I got home, he wouldn’t let go of that trophy, that little Rookie of the Year trophy they gave me? He’s like “Oh man, this is great!” He’d start showing it off to everybody else.

They have it displayed. It’s pretty cool. Even my welcome home party they had a bunch of family and people over at the house, and they were just showing it off to them. Not like in a bragging way, but just so proud. And that’s when he was all like “We’re putting it up here, up here where people can see it!’” And mom was like ‘I still haven’t seen it!’ And he’s like, “You’ll see it! You’ll see it all year long!”

A funny story about that. I had it wrapped up in my bag, to take it home, right? The security stops me, thinking it’s some kind of bomb. Because I had it wrapped up in newspaper, but the way it was shaped, it didn’t look so good (laughs) So right away, “Open it for me,” and I’m like “Oh my God, I’m going to miss my flight!”

What was the most difficult part of your rookie season in Charleston?

Cuevas' rookie campaign had its ups and downs, but none felt lower than his injury at Rochester in the playoffs.

Cuevas’ rookie campaign had its ups and downs, but none felt lower than his injury at Rochester in the playoffs.

Probably in the quarterfinal when I pulled my hamstring. I thought I was done for that. Thankfully I can recover really quickly, so I recovered in time for Rochester. But I re-did it. I re-did it like 30 minutes in. And that was probably the worst, especially going down 1-0. I was just like “I can’t believe we’re done.”

In my head, I’m just like, “I failed. I failed.” And that was that.

And then we got that goal. And I’m just like “Come on, come on, recovery, recovery.” So that whole week I just dedicated myself to just fully recover. Bobby did a great job getting me ready for the game.

They were like, “Just go, Championship game, 30, 40 minutes, whatever you can, just do your thing.” I’m like, “OK, OK.” So like 60, 70 minutes in, I’m still feeling OK. And then, at one point, it’s like, nothing’s happening. And I was scared to sprint, because I was going to (re-injure) it.

So at one point, I got the ball, and I’m just like “I’m turning, and I’m going towards goal. I don’t care what happens. No one is stopping me.”

So I turned towards goal, and I’m sprinting. I’m like, “I don’t care if I pull right here, I’m just going to throw my leg, and whatever happens.”

So I go, and I see (midfielder Michael) Azira making the run. It’s a hard ball, because I have to put my leg a certain way, where it’s not good for my hamstring. Three guys close me in. I’m just like, “I can’t shoot, I can’t do nothing.” I slide the ball in. It hurts, you know, while I’m doing it.

We put it away. Goal.

Cuevas started the USL PRO  Championship match despite nursing a bad hamstring, and dished out the assist for Michael Azira's game-wnner in the 74th minute. Six minutes later he crumpled to the ground -- and limped off the field to a standing ovation.

Cuevas started the USL PRO Championship match despite nursing a bad hamstring, and dished out the assist for Michael Azira’s game-wnner in the 74th minute. Six minutes later he crumpled to the ground — and limped off the field to a standing ovation.

Five minutes later, I feel it. It’s about the 80th minute, and I’m just like, I can’t be selfish and stay in. I go straight to the ground. I’m like, ‘Coach, I’m done.’

And then, walking off. The crowd all got up and applauded me.

That was probably the one of the best feelings ever. Tears were just… it was so painful the whole time, but just hearing that, and then hearing the final whistle blow and seeing everybody jump up…

Coming back to what you said about, you know, people coming towards me, I try to acknowledge everybody. I remember I did an interview with a radio station, and some of the people at the radio station were like “You’re not like the other players.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” Like “Yeah, the other players, they just tend to blow people off.” That’s what the Battery was famed for here, that they would blow people off.

I was like “Really? I’m not going to be like that. There’s no way I’m going to be like that.” And it started changing a little bit last year.

Seriously? You can’t take two or three seconds to sign a kid’s shirt, that’s going to probably mean so much to him? Make his night. Make his year.

My dad always taught me, be humble. Be humble. No matter what you have. You can be the richest person in the world. Be humble. A lot of giving, as well, because I try to be as religious as I can.

What church do you attend here?

It’s in Goose Creek. It’s a Catholic Church.

We just try to be better people. Me, Azira and the Cubans, we do Bible studies.

This year, with the Cubans coming, a lot of people see, like, that you don’t realize what you have until you see other people don’t have that much. The Cubans didn’t eat every day. They would just eat rice. They wouldn’t have any kind of meat or anything like that.

Cuevas and teammates Kevin Klasila, Nicki Paterson, Shawn Ferguson and Bryce Alderson sit for an autograph session with campers in June.

Cuevas and teammates Kevin Klasila, Nicki Paterson, Shawn Ferguson and Bryce Alderson sit for an autograph session with campers in June.

That kinda got to me, because I know where they’re coming from. Me growing up, it was seriously two tacos of beans, with coffee. Every single day growing up. And afternoon, maybe a piece of meat. That’s all we did. Beans and coffee, beans and coffee. And to give coffee to a little kid, it’s kinda, you know (laughs).

Even the crowd, like, sometimes I know they would feel bad, because they would yell at us on the field, “Hey, good job” and stuff, and we don’t acknowledge it because we’re too into the game. But whenever I do, kinda, hear something, I’ll throw a thumbs up.

I remember the Houston Dynamo game that we had here, there was a group of kids, you could tell they were high school kids, and they were like yelling my name and chanting it, and I recognized them. They would say certain things and I would smile. I remember after the game they were chanting my name. If it makes their day, why not? That’s what it’s all about.

To tell you the truth, that’s probably my favorite part about soccer. When the kids smile, there’s no better feeling than that. The goals are OK. But after the game when the kids come up and they give you a hug and they’re like “Sign this! Sign this!” That’s the best part.

You were red hot in the preseason when people weren’t recording statistics, but you got injured in the first regular season game and so your stats have taken a hit. Do you think soccer people are aware of the contributions you’ve made that don’t show up on a stat sheet?

A hamstring injury on April 13 at Richmond pushed Cuevas off the field and into the periphery of the team. Relegated to collecting stray balls and working on his own, Cuevas missed the next four games, and didn't play a full-90-minute match until May 21.

A hamstring injury on April 13 at Richmond pushed Cuevas off the field and into the periphery of the team. Relegated to collecting stray balls and working on his own, Cuevas missed the next four games, and didn’t play a full-90-minute match until May 21.

I haven’t really talked to my agent about it. I’ve just been trying to get back on it and play. I’ve still been limited to my potential of soccer, just because of my injury. I still can’t…You haven’t seen me do a full sprint since preseason. I still haven’t sprinted yet, the whole of this season.

I remember being at Real Salt Lake, and their coach recognized it. He was like “You’re a good player. We’ll keep an eye on you.”

You gotta have those people like Coach Anhaeuser. He’s probably hands-down one of the best scouts, smartest guys I’ve ever met. Not because he picked me up or anything like that (laughs). When we did the (USL PRO) combine here, I didn’t score or have an assist. I just played good, had solid games, and he recognized it. He didn’t really care about the stats. So if one of those coaches in MLS, like Coach Anhaeuser, sees that…

To be honest, I didn’t expect to see you in Charleston this season. You had some opportunities with MLS. Tell me about those. 

I heard some indoor teams were interested, and Anhaeuser didn’t see that as the best bet. He sees me playing in the MLS, and he told me that. I went with his decision.

My agent talked to San Jose. And they were like, “Yeah, we know about him, we know what he did. We’ll bring him in.” I think it was the end of September. I was there a week. They only had like three training sessions, because they had an international break.

Battery fan Ben Gregory shows off his new t-shirt. Designed by Regiment member Scott Johnstone, the shirt has become a fan favorite. Cuevas owns one himself -- but says he has never tasted liquor.

Battery fan Ben Gregory shows off his new “Jose Cuevas Tequila” t-shirt. Designed by Regiment member Scott Johnstone, the shirt has become a fan favorite. Cuevas owns one himself — but says he has never tasted liquor.

They brought me in when they had some of the other trialists in. We played a reserve game in Seattle. So that’s where the Sounders coaches (saw me).

Finally in preseason, Anhaeuser talked to the coach in Seattle, and he was like “Bring him in, bring him in.” Coach kinda told them about Cody as well, and me and Cody ended up going. It was the end of January. I think I was there three days. They were in a rush to get to Arizona, and that was the only time they could bring me in.

To be honest, I thought Seattle was going to hold on to me, because they needed a right or left mid, and I can do that. And even the attacking mid role, where Rosales is getting older, I know they have him, but you have those hard games that double back-to-back, I was like, maybe I can start as a reserve and work my way up. So I saw that and I thought, ‘If he says no, then I respect it and we’ll just go from whatever happens.’

I just let God do his work.

This season, who knows? Maybe I start doing well again and we do good and another team picks me up. I know with Vancouver, we have a good connection. Anything could happen.

From talking to people with the Battery, they take the perspective that moving your best players up instead of holding on to them is good for the club because there’s no draft in USL PRO. Players decide which offer they want to take, and the top talents want to sign with the club that has the best reputation for helping players advance.

Absolutely. That’s what Chad told me. After the combine, there were a couple of teams that wanted me. And he goes, “Battery has a good fame of sending players to the next level. You should go with that.”

Cuevas lines up on the left side of the Battery formation on June 8. Though he hopes to move up the MLS soon, he's happy in Charleston, and feels he's still learning.

Cuevas lines up on the left side of the Battery formation on June 8. Though he hopes to move up the MLS soon, he’s happy in Charleston, and feels he’s still learning.

You’re 24 years old. What do you think is your window to make the leap to MLS, before they start looking at you as too old?

I don’t feel that MLS even looks at younger people, to be honest. It’s a lot different from Mexico. “Oh, younger? We’ll work with them and then see what happens.” Whereas here, they want the experienced players. There’s guys that are having first years as 27-year-olds.

For my plans, what I’ve wanted, I want to be in MLS next year. But if it doesn’t happen for two or three years, I’m comfortable with the Battery. I love it here. It’s not always about the money or getting in the higher levels. Sometimes its just about being with family.

What’s your relationship with (former Battery player and interim San Jose head coach) Mark Watson?

I didn’t really know him until this off-season, and he’s just a great guy, man. He’s the first person I met at San Jose. He waited for me at the hotel, because I flew in, straight to Seattle, and all the San Jose team was there. He was like “Oh, you had a great year.” And even this year, when they came here, he talked to me afterward. He goes, “Just keep it up, man, keep it up.” And now that he’s head coach, who knows what can happen? I always liked San Jose, since I was a kid. If it ends up happening there, that would be good.

Rafael Baca

Rafael Baca

Did you get to know Rafael Baca?

Yeah, yeah (laughs). Baca… He’s a cool guy. He wasn’t really too fond of me being there in the same position that he plays, you know?

When I got there he came up to me, “Hey, what’s up?” you know. He’s Mexican. And then once he asked my position and I told him, he was all like, ‘Uh…’ (laughs). So he kinda made it obvious, ever since I told him my position he kinda just backed off of me. After the Earthquakes game, he didn’t want to shake my hand. And I’m like “You really want to be like that, man?” Finally he came back and shook my hand.

Baca’s role in San Jose is the role you were playing in Charleston, but not so much anymore.

No, (not) once Ben Fisk got injured. I’m able to play from attacking mid, left-right mid, to forward. Sometime that’s where (Anhaeuser) puts me, striker. I just work my way around.

And in the PDL, outside midfielder was my spot. (My PDL coach) moved me out to the wing and just let me play my game out there. Once (Anhaeuser) put me back (outside), I kinda came back to those days.

Cuevas' 2013 season got off to a bad start with an injury at Richmond on April 13. But he has played in more positions and roles in 2013 than he did as a rookie.

Cuevas’ 2013 season got off to a bad start with an injury at Richmond on April 13. But he has played in more positions and roles in 2013 than he did as a rookie.

Matt Doyle from MLS.com recently made the case that while we still have attacking players who line up in the middle, nowadays they’re doing most of their creating on the sides.

You’re 100 percent right. The 10 is moving out to the side, if that makes sense.

I feel it helps me out because it lets me think more, and when I can think more, I can make better decisions. So when I get out there, especially on one-on-ones, I love it. If I’m in the middle and I get the ball and I turn, two or three guys right on me. And me being the size that I am, at this level, they’ll just hit me and knock me off the ball. But out there, I like it because I get space, and then just work.

Coach calls me sneaky a lot, because the ball will be played on the other side, and I’m in behind a certain way. And that’s what I like to do, kinda like Chiccarito-style type of deal, where I get in the right place at the right time. I’ll try to do something like that.

What haven’t I asked you that people should know?

Especially for the kids, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t really party unless it’s with the team, if it’s an event or something like that. I really never did any of that stuff. I’ve never even tasted beer, tasted liquor. Never did anything like that.

Do you see yourself being a soccer professional after you stop playing or do you see yourself going back to school?

My plan for the future is to possibly become an agent, but only an agent for kids out of my town. I want to build an academy there. I want to build a complex, I want to do all that. After I’m done.

Because right now I’m coaching the high school. It’s a paying gig, but that money, I just give it back. Because the school has to pay somebody. So when they pay me, I just give it back so they can go to camps, they can get jerseys, things like that. I don’t even do that as a tax write-off (laughs). I know, I know. I’m gonna do it this year.

Cuevas hugs Battery fan Jean Harkins at the 2013 Dragonboat Festival.

Cuevas hugs Battery fan Jean Harkins at the 2013 Dragonboat Festival.

Right now, me and the head coach there are working on getting the complex, trying to help the city, get the kids going, just keep them away from trouble. Because, to be honest, my town’s real bad with that. With drugs. Gangs. Stuff like that. The gangs have come down, but the drugs got higher. The whole cartel situation.

I haven’t even been to Mexico to see my grandparents because of that. It’s just too scary. Like if they hear that I’m a professional soccer player, even though I don’t make that much money, (I’ll get kidnapped) right away. So I flew my grandparents over last year. I hadn’t seen them in five years.

I don’t even want a big house. I don’t want none of that. A nice home, where I can just live comfortably. I’m not about “Let’s have a Lamborgini or a Ferrari” or none of that. I’m OK with my truck. I’m fine with that.

TOP PHOTO: USL PRO Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas concentrates during the Battery’s 1-0 league Championship victory over Wilmington at Blackbaud Stadium on Sept. 8, 2012. CHARLESTON BATTERY PHOTO. 

5 Comments

  1. Great stuff Dan. he should be giving lessons to players in Europe on humility and hard work. Makes me really hope he does well and lights up MLS.

  2. Yeah, as far as I can tell, the guy’s only flaw is that he doesn’t drink beer. 😉

  3. This was a great article. What an insight into the life of Jose Cuevas. I’ll be rooting for him not only in soccer, but in life as well.

  4. Good role model for the kids. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs. Has a great work ethic and his faith in God shines through. Great interview, Dan.

  5. Wow! This is a great article. I really hope Jose makes it into MLS. His faith is a shining example for us all