No Chicken LittleDec 01, 2017 ● By Stephen Hunt
“I think why they called him that was he was big upper body and little in the legs, and that stuck,” Mr. Cortes, 24, shares. “He was ‘Pollo’ and I was ‘Pollito,’ which is ‘small chicken.’ Then, I grew up and took the name of just ‘Pollo.’ Everyone knows me by ‘Pollo’ now. It has grown on me. I do not mind it!”
Originally, Mr. Cortes played forward like his father before switching to goalkeeper. At 5-foot 10 inches, he grew up idolizing 6-foot Spanish keeper Iker Casillas, a highly-decorated athlete with Spain’s national team and with Real Madrid. “Iker Casillas was not always the tallest guy around, but I just loved how he played. I loved his personality and how mature he was in his game,” Mr. Cortes says. “He started out at a young age, as well. I watch him play and try to emulate what he does at times.”
In 2009, Mr. Cortes started playing for the FC Dallas Academy. However, instead of signing a professional contract like former academy teammates Kellyn Acosta, a Plano native, and Aaron Guillen, he took a different route before eventually signing with the first team.
For four years, Mr. Cortes played college soccer at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He then spent 2016 with St. Louis FC of the United Soccer League (USL) and was with the Indy Eleven of the North American Soccer League (NASL) during pre-season this spring. However, after not securing a roster spot in Indy, he returned home and resumed training with FC Dallas.
In early September, with Dallas needing a third goalkeeper for depth, the club inked Mr. Cortes, an easy call for technical director Fernando Clavijo. “First of all, he is a quality individual,” Mr. Clavijo says. “We did not want to give false expectations to anyone else. When I talked to the coaches, it was clear he was ready to go. He grabbed it and has the benefit. We are glad to sign him because he is a hard worker … he has done well. We felt having someone of his character and the academy background, it was a plus.”
Mr. Cortes is grateful to FC Dallas for this opportunity and to his father for constantly pushing him to never give up his dream of playing professionally. However, the young keeper is equally happy for his mother, Guadalupe, because of the integral role she played in helping her only child sign with his hometown team. “She has helped me out a ton, just trying to help me get a car, trying to help me get here to practice when I could not,” Mr. Cortes shares. “There was a time when I was not going to be able to come (to practice) anymore and I was not certain what I was going to do. She ended up, from her own money, trying to get me a car and got me one. My mom was the most supportive one to keep me going. She has been strong. Honestly, I cannot thank her enough. All that hard work I put in is for her and my family. The day I told her they were going to sign me, she was so happy.”
The Road Less Travelled
In 2009, FC Dallas signed midfielder Bryan Levya, 17, out of its academy, the first of many players the club signed from its academy. In fact, Mr. Cortes is the twentieth player Dallas has inked out of its academy, but his route to the first team has been winding if not unconventional.
During his four seasons at IUPUI, and subsequent time with St. Louis and Indianapolis, Mr. Cortes longed for the warmer weather he had grown up with and gotten accustomed to training and playing in.
He also missed being around his family and training with FC Dallas’s first team, which he still did during his college years when he was home for the summer. “It would snow up there and you would have to play in those tough conditions. It was awful, to be quite honest,” Mr. Cortes says.
“The weather is much better over here. It is hotter, but you get used to it. The way we train over here, it is different than in college. You are only playing for three months, so you do not have much time to get better. You go to pre-season for a week, week and a half, and you start playing. You are playing two, three games a week and you have class.”
However, Mr. Cortes was not entirely focused on soccer the past few years. He also worked, holding jobs in trucking and in customer service for Allstate® Insurance — jobs which he did not love, but gigs which served an important purpose because they allowed him to continue pursuing his dream of securing a professional contract. “I held that thought that if I kept working, something was going to come,” Mr. Cortes says. “Obviously, there were hard days where you would think it might not happen. I always tried to keep myself motivated. I realized my job was not my passion. I did not like it, I did not want to be there. If you are not doing something you love, you are going to regret it the rest of your life. There were certainly a lot of days where it was tough, mentally, but I think if you are mentally strong and willing to do the work, you will get to where you need to be. I am just happy to be here.”
One constant during the past eight years has been his strong relationship with FC Dallas goalkeeping coach Drew Keeshan, who just completed his tenth season with the club. Around Major League Soccer, Mr. Keeshan is considered one of the best keeper coaches in the game — someone who has had success with all sorts of keepers. “The one thing that you like about Pollo is his personality in training,” Mr. Keeshan says. “He loves to train, loves to work hard and he is a kid you can really push. And when you push, he responds in the way you want him to. He is just a really good person to be around. The strength of his game is his shot stopping. His reactions one-on-one are fantastic and he enjoys that part of the game.”
Mr. Cortes remains indebted to Mr. Keeshan for the sage advice which has helped him reach this point in his career. “He has been a big part of my development. I would not be here if it was not for him,” Mr. Cortes shares. “He is obviously tough on us, but it is something that has to be done to get to this level right now. I am very appreciative of how he has been with me. He has helped me out and given me the opportunity to be here.”
He does not know what the future holds on or off the field, but Mr. Cortes remains grateful and optimistic about his chances of continuing to live his dream. “It just goes to show anyone can reach their goal or dream. Whatever it is, it just takes hard work, a lot of perseverance and being strong mentally,” he says. “Honestly, I am just very happy and grateful to God for everything’s that happened.”