While it wasn’t the same as playing in front of tens of thousands of rabid fans during 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup play, Silverbacks midfielder Richie Menjivar felt right at home stepping onto the field for his NASL Fall Season debut on August 10 against the Carolina RailHawks at Atlanta Silverbacks Park.
At the modest age of 22, Menjivar experienced something very few young players have the privilege of experiencing. The 5-foot-8 midfielder started all four of El Salvador’s Gold Cup fixtures in July, helping “La Selecta” reach the tournament’s quarterfinals where they fell to the U.S.
The tournament provided Menjivar with loads of experience, and the Silverbacks are hoping Menjivar can apply what he learned to the team’s fall season campaign.
“It was a very good experience, I think. I got lots of exposure, it was fun, and we got the chance to play against some great teams,” Menjivar said. “Every game was a battle, but I loved the overall experience. I wish I could be part of something like that more frequently.”
Menjivar, who was born and raised in Panorama City, California, received his first call-up for the El Salvador senior national team in late 2012, and he has been a mainstay in the squad since. With two games left in the NASL Spring Season, he left the Silverbacks to join the El Salvador team for their Gold Cup training camp. Menjivar spoke about the the transition from the club level with the Silverbacks to the international level, playing against some the best players in North America.
“I think maybe one of the biggest differences is tactics. Tactically, every team knows what they have to do and where they have to be,” Menjivar said. “The players are a little bit stronger and smarter, and I think they’re definitely a little quicker on the ball and mentally, they’re already a few steps ahead.”
With a possession-first style of play, both La Selecta and the Silverbacks emphasize controlling the ball and dictating the speed of play, which gives opponents very few scoring opportunities when executed well. Menjivar enjoys the fact that he gets to play a similar style of soccer all the time – whether he plays for club or country.
“I think for the most part, the Silverbacks play similar football to El Salvador,” Menjivar said. “With El Salvador, we have small players and we like to keep the ball. We don’t tend to do as well when the ball is being played in the air.”
“For the most part, the hardest thing is adapting to all of the players and getting to know their tendencies. I already know most of the guys from El Salvador, so it only took a few days to get used to everyone.”
El Salvador began the tournament in arguably the hardest group, getting drawn against Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and Honduras. In the last week of group play, it came down El Salvador beating Haiti 1-0, with Menjivar’s teammate, forward Rodolfo Zelaya, notching the only goal in the game. The result clinched a mouthwatering matchup against the U.S. – Menjivar’s country of birth.
“I think we had the hardest group. With Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, and Haiti, our group came down to the wire,” he said. “Unfortunately for us, we drew the U.S. in the next round and they ended up winning the tournament.”
In the first half of the quarterfinals, the U.S. went up 2-0 thanks to goals from defender Clarence Goodson and midfielder Joe Corona. Menjivar and El Salvador would fight back before halftime, with Zelaya pulling a goal back from the penalty spot.
“Against the U.S., we started off the second half well despite being down 2-1,” Menjivar said. “We were close to scoring that second goal, which would’ve made it a different game, but their third goal kind of killed us because it forced us to push up for the rest of the game and it was all over from there.”
Menjivar’s parents and family are from El Salvador, making him “feel Salvadoran” as he describes it. Before he decided to play for his family’s home country, he did have a brief stint with the U.S. U-18 squad in Uruguay. Afterwards, though, he made the decision to pledge his allegiance to El Salvador. His decision came full circle when he was part of the El Salvador squad that eliminated the U.S. from the 2012 Olympics. It was a famous win for El Salvador’s national team program, and a day to forget for the U.S.
“I’m glad I made the decision because it’s taken me to a different level. I feel more at home playing with El Salvador, and it made my parents happy,” he said. “I like to see them happy because they’ve given me a lot of support, so I wanted to give back a little to them. I think their style of play suits me well and I think that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I chose to play for the U.S.”
During his first season with the Silverbacks, Menjivar has notched two goals and an assist. With his Gold Cup experience, he will look to lead the NASL Spring Season champions to Soccer Bowl glory this November.
“Like I said, the level was very, very high at the Gold Cup, and it gave me more experience on how to manage games. At the highest level, it’s how you manage games and how you respond in certain situations that makes a difference. I hope I can continue to do that for the Silverbacks all year long.”
Menjivar and the Silverbacks are back home this Saturday to host the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at 7:30 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. To purchase tickets, call 404-969-4900 or visit atlantasilverbacksfc.com.