Fernando Monge admitted there were times when he wasn’t sure he would be able to play soccer after college.
Conversely, over the past few years there were few who could envision soccer not being in Ryan Hollingshead’s future.
Now, things have changed for both in a big way.
Monge, a redshirt senior midfielder/forward this past season for UCLA men’s soccer, was invited along with Hollingshead, a senior midfielder/forward for the Bruins, to the Major League Soccer combine.
Monge and Hollingshead are two of only 54 college seniors invited to the annual showcase, meant to allow MLS teams to scout and interview players ahead of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. The combine will be held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 11-15, and will only have one UCLA player in attendance.
Since UCLA’s season ended on Nov. 18, 2012, when the unseeded San Diego Toreros upset the No. 6 Bruins in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Monge has been back home in Seattle, Wash., preparing for an opportunity to play soccer professionally.
“I talked to a bunch of the alumni guys that have helped me out, a couple of the guys who went through the process last year and a couple of years before that,” Monge said of the combine.
“The players and coaches have been willing to help and it’s been awesome. I’ve been very lucky to have those people around me and they’re giving me kind of a guideline of how to hopefully prepare for it and know what to expect.”
Since returning home, Monge has participated in individual workouts in preparation for the combine. Monge’s training regimen has also included playing with local players from the University of Washington and MLS pros, including former UCLA teammates and current Seattle Sounder players Andy Rose and David Estrada.
Monge experienced his most successful individual season at UCLA in 2012, scoring a career-high five goals, including a golden goal in double overtime against Stanford in November. But Monge’s path to the combine and a potential soccer career didn’t come without its share of adversity.
Redshirting as a junior in 2010 prompted Monge to assess exactly where he was as a player and person, and playing soccer professionally seemed like it might not be an option.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do the next couple years and it was really a time to reflect and think about what I had to do,” Monge said of the experience.
“Honestly, I started to reach out to other people and they started giving me advice and I started hearing all these different scenarios and different things that I could go on different paths.”
Monge’s work to get back on the field after redshirting did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
“I know losing a year of playing is humbling, and I think it was really an eye-opening experience to see how much he wanted to improve and to see how much he wanted to get out there and play,” said junior defender Joe Sofia.
“I think we all missed him that one year and I think redshirting that year really motivated him to work hard and have an awesome two seasons.”
Junior forward Reed Williams cited Monge’s game-winning goal against Stanford as indicative of the type of player Monge was for the Bruins.
“He definitely was good at giving us a lift when we needed it most,” Williams said.
“Our season really could’ve been completely different if we hadn’t gotten that goal to get that win at home. To have the composure to finish that goal … He always had this calmness or coolness about him.”
While Monge’s UCLA career took off late, Hollingshead played in 81 of 85 games over four seasons, culminating in the career year of 2012. The team captain scored a career-high seven goals to go along with a career-high eight assists, earning him Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. Hollingshead is the fifth-ever UCLA player to win conference player of the year honors.
His stellar play earned him an invitation to the MLS combine, but Hollingshead will not attend.
According to those close to him, Hollingshead is putting his playing career on hold to pursue other opportunities.
“I think Ryan’s a really hard-working, honest individual, and he was a great captain for us this year,” Sofia said.
“He set the bar really high for us and really he was a strong leader on our team that everyone looked up to, and he leaves a gap next year that we’re going to have to fill on and off the field.”
According to Sofia and Williams, Hollingshead plans to start his own church. Hollingshead, himself, could not be reached for comment because he is currently in Haiti.
“I think Ryan is going to pursue whatever his heart desires and I think wherever he wants to go he will be successful,” Sofia said.
“I think this whole sports thing, he’s had an amazing career at UCLA, and I think his heart’s been in soccer and now maybe it’s time for him to move on and go wherever else he wants to go.”
Hollingshead’s decision was hardly a surprise to those close to him.
“It’s not a suprise because he’s such a selfless person on and off the field, especially off the field. He always thinks about other people,” Williams said.
While Monge is excited about his opportunity to pursue a professional career, he also appreciates whatever Hollingshead decides to do.
“Obviously, it’d be awesome to see him keep playing, but you’ve got to respect whatever he wants to do with his life and if he has another vision then I totally respect that and I’m all in for it,” Monge said.
“I’m so happy to be a good friend of his and happy to see that he’s had such a successful soccer career and also off the field he’s an awesome guy.”
As for Monge, he is excited to get an opportunity that at one point he felt might never come. Now, he’s determined to make it count.
“To be honest, I’m just taking this step-by-step, trying to soak up everything I can, first of all with the combine,” Monge said. “Sometimes maybe in the past I looked at too big of a picture … and now my focus is more narrow, more direct, and right now my focus is on the combine, and whatever happens after that, happens.”