by JAKE NUTTING
Juan Tejada may be an unknown to many Tampa Bay Rowdies supporters, but the USL Championship club’s latest recruit has been building his reputation in local soccer circles for a while now.
For the last four years, Tejada has showcased his skills at Eckerd College, which is just a short 15-minute drive away from the Rowdies’ Al Lang Field. The Panamanian attacker started every match for Eckerd in his freshman year and did the same the following three years, eventually wrapping up his college career this past fall with a total of 23 goals and 12 assists. During the past two off-season’s from Eckerd, Tejada also made waves with 16 goals for the Lakeland Tropics in the USL PDL (now USL League Two).
Now 22 years old, Tejada has entered the professional ranks with the Rowdies after impressing as a trialist throughout the preseason.
“I’ve played soccer all my life. I think when I was like three, four years old I started to play in my neighborhood, in a field they have there. From there I just started growing and growing and kept playing. It was my dream since I was a kid and,” Tejada recalls. “This is the beginning really. This is my first professional contract with the Rowdies. I think it’s just amazing that they trust in me. I’m so excited for my first season.”
A scholarship offer from IMG Academy brought Tejada to Florida to finish out his final year of high school. Despite having options to sign professionally in Panama, Tejada and his family didn’t want to waste the chance at an education presented thanks to his soccer skills.
“It was a long process of my parents and me trying to study all the options we had because I was also offered a professional contract in Panama. But I know if I would have accepted that I wouldn’t have had the chance to come here and study. So we studied everything and thought the best thing was to go to IMG and get a chance to go to college. It ended up being the right choice, I believe.”
Tejada earned a spot on the Sunshine State Conference’s Fall Commissioner’s Honor Roll every year while studying International Business and Business Administration at Eckerd.
“Education was always important, for me and definitely my parents. They always supported me there and really advised me,” Tejada says. “I just finished my education (at Eckerd). It’s a very important part of life. I believe that education is always important. Just because I’m not in the university anymore doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop learning, you know? I always try to educate myself, not only about the game but about other stuff that are important in life.”
Arriving on your own in a foreign country as a teenager, trying to learn the local language, maintain your studies and still remain commited to developing as a player can be an intimidating scenario for anyone. However, Tejada pushed through those early difficulties and settled into life in Tampa Bay comfortably thanks to his relationships in soccer.
Gaining that level of comfort allowed Tejada to focus on soaking up what his new environment had to offer about what goes into being a professional athlete. While much of his technical skills were developed as youth player in Panama, he’s also picked up plenty of useful knowledge over the last few years.
“I developed my attitude and how I kinda play in Panama. It was very technical, and at the same time it was very physical,” he says. “Here I got into how important it is to be an athlete and how to take care of yourself regarding nutrition, regarding the things that you need to do outside of the field to perform. That’s a big thing happened when I came here to the U.S. I learned all this stuff. I just tried to put it all into practice. It really influenced my attitude now and the way I play — a lot of energy and just trying to show my abilities. I really evolved from where I was in Panama to where I am now. It’s been really good.”
That energetic effort Tejada says he hopes to offer whenever he’s on the field was definitely impossible to miss during his appearance against MLS’ DC United in the Suncoast Invitational. His tempo and relentlessness had a bunch of Rowdies supporters calling for the club to ink him to a deal.
They didn’t have to wait long to be appeased. Tejada was announced as an official member of the roster just a few days later. The contract wasn’t earned, though, on the back of one good showing off the bench in an exhibition match. It was earned through weeks of positive impressions in training and other closed-door matches.
“I was just looking at (the trial) from a different perspective. I was just like I’m gonna be winning either way, in the sense that even if I don’t sign a contract I’m gonna be learning because I’m gonna be training with these guys in a competitive environment. I’ll be playing games. So I’ll be learning,” he notes. “It was just amazing that at the end I got a reward. I just worked so hard and really tried to show that I can add value to the team. That’s what the coaches saw in me. The players were really welcoming to me and that helped me to perform. I was not nervous or stressed. Of course at some point when it was getting closer and closer to playing games and ‘OK, we’re gonna be making some decisions’ I was getting anxious to know, but I always felt confident that I was giving my all.”
Tejada obviously enjoyed sharing the news of his contract with his parents, who requested daily updates throughout his trial.
“They’ve always believed in me, even sometimes more than me in a sense, because sometimes there’s ups and downs. They always supported me and told me ‘you’re gonna get it, you’re doing fine. We know your abilities. We know you work hard.’ When I told them they were very happy, very proud of me. They still try to keep me level. They tell me this is just the beginning. This is just a piece of paper. From now on it’s still just the same, working harder and harder to perform and to become the best player I can be.”
Adding Tejada to the squad is further evidence of the Rowdies’ shift toward younger players ahead of the 2019 season. It also shows Head Coach Neill Collins and his staff have an eye on local talent and are may be willing to take more of a chance on that talent than has been the case in years past. When asked about the level of talent in the area, Tejada highlighted the Tampa Bay United players that have been participating in training and some matches with the Rowdies during preseason.
“There have been three or four guys that have been with us during preseason, young guys, and they have just performed so well. They are so young and they still have a long way to go. I’ve been around here for nearly five years and the overall talent in Tampa Bay is very good. It’s only been evolving and I bet we will see a lot of talent coming out of Tampa Bay soon.”
Photo via Tampa Bay Rowdies