ECNL ATHLETES FULFILL THEIR DREAMS WITH PRO DEBUTS IN US OPEN CUP
By Jacob Born | April 25, 2022
Across the United States, there are thousands of kids who dream of becoming a professional soccer player. They’re in their backyards, scoring the game-winning goal of the World Cup final. They’re making the game-winning save to win the Champions League trophy. They put on their favorite pro team’s jersey to head to the stadium, dreaming of one day wearing that same kit and playing on that same field.
Two ECNL players, Santiago Castaneda and Aimar Membrila, grew up with those same dreams. Earlier this month, they both made those dreams come true, suiting up professionally for Tampa Bay Rowdies and FC Tulsa, respectively, for Round 2 matches in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup – the oldest US national soccer competition that brings together amateur teams, semi-pro clubs and every USL and MLS team in pursuit of a championship.
Castaneda made his debut midway through the second half of the Rowdies’ match against The Villages. The high-school junior fell right into the game plan, helping his side continue to dictate the pace of play, and was on the field for two tallies as the Rowdies cruised to a 6-0 win.
“The nerves were definitely there,” Castaneda said. “But once I got that first touch, they all went away. But it was definitely a different atmosphere. The quality of play was really high and it was a lot faster. It didn’t really even hit me until the game was over that I had made my professional debut. I came into the game just trying to play smart soccer and then once it was over, I realized I had just played my first professional game.”
Membrila also made history for FC Tulsa when he entered the Open Cup contest against Tulsa Athletic in the 78th minute, becoming the first academy player to make his pro debut with the club. In his 15 minutes of play, Membrila helped secure FC Tulsa’s 2-1 victory in the first-ever contest against these cross-town rivals.
“That’s what I had been working toward for years, so I just had to be ready whenever the opportunity came,” Membrila said. “Fortunately against Tulsa Athletic I was able to get some minutes and make my debut in front of my family and friends. To be able to do it here in Tulsa, it was really special.”
Both Castaneda and Membrila took similar paths, highlighted by exceptional play in the ECNL leading to professional clubs allowing them the opportunity to continue their development and testing them for the future.
Castaneda first played with a soccer ball at the age of three, a natural occurrence in a house with a professional soccer player for a dad. From there, it was all about soccer. There was always a ball at his feet, and as he grew older, he was always on the pitch, looking to play whenever he could.
“My dad played professional soccer in Colombia,” Castaneda said. “So I started playing soccer when I was three years old and come from a family that’s all about soccer. I’ve always wanted to play for the top teams and all growing up, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to do so.”
By the time he was 16, Castaneda was one of the brightest soccer players in the area, joining Florida Premier FC ECNL in 2020. Once with the club, his development continued, and by 2021, he was getting significant interest from the USL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies.
In December 2021, Castaneda participated in the ECNL Florida National Selection Game, an all-star competition at the ECNL Florida national event highlighting some of the best athletes in the league. Castaneda had an incredible game, ultimately being named the man of the match in Team East’s 1-0 win in penalties.
“All of the best players around the ECNL come together for that one game to showcase themselves to thousands of fans and college coaches,” Castaneda said. “It was a whole other level; it was a higher pace and much more physical style of game. Luckily for me, I had a really good performance. I got man of the match and my name started to get out there. And I think it really prepared me for what the next level looked like.”
Before the match, Castaneda said he had few collegiate offers. However, following that game, numerous college programs reached out to him, allowing him to set up college visits, greatly improving his prospects of playing collegiate soccer.
Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Neill Collins also had his eye on Castaneda for a while, paying close attention to the budding player. A few weeks following the National Selection Game, Collins brought Castaneda into the Rowdies’ training camp for the 2022 preseason. He was supposed to just get experience training with the club for a few weeks, but his great performances changed that plan.
On April 4, 2022, Castaneda signed an Academy Contract with the Rowdies, allowing him to participate in training with a professional club while still maintaining his eligibility for NCAA and club soccer. It also paved the way for him to make his professional debut just a few days later.
“I was only supposed to come for the first two weeks of preseason and that was it,” Castaneda said. “But everything went so well. They ended up giving me an academy contract, so I can continue with them and keep going every single day. Signing that contract was a great feeling. I never expected it at all.”
Maintaining his NCAA eligibility was key for Castaneda, as he is seriously considering several college offers. But he also doesn’t want to rule out going straight to the pros either, something that is certainly plausible given his debut a couple of weeks ago.
“I still have to make a decision, if I want to fully commit to the pro route or to go the college route,” Castaneda said. “But I’m still a junior in high school, so I have time to make that decision. I’m just thankful that because of the academy contract I have the choice to pursue both if I want to.”
Membrila signed a similar USL Academy Contract in February, fulfilling the dreams he first had when he was much younger. Also taking to the soccer ball when he was just three years old, Membrila established himself with Tulsa SC at a very early age.
“I started playing when I was three and fell in love with the game,” Membrila said. “I always had a ball with me. Growing up and playing with Tulsa, you see it’s a great organization. I’ve made tons of great relationships through the club and the coaching staff really helped mold me to the player I am today.”
All that time, Membrila idolized the Tulsa Roughnecks, the region’s professional soccer team that eventually rebranded as FC Tulsa in 2020. He was in the stands for some of the club’s greatest wins and dreamed of one day being on that same pitch.
Membrila took a major step toward that goal when he signed his Academy Contract with FC Tulsa during the club’s preseason. Throughout his youth years, FC Tulsa Head Coach Michael Nsien kept a close eye on Membrila, mentoring him and helping push his development along. This winter, he knew what the next step was, and that was allowing Membrila to train with the senior team and letting him compete for a spot on the first team.
“That’s what you work for you know all your life, to get that academy contract,” Membrila said. “To sign with my hometown club FC Tulsa is just amazing. I wasn’t going to let this chance pass me up. I was so excited for the opportunity.”
When the US Open Cup match against Tulsa Athletic came around, Membrila proved he was ready and was included as a part of the gameday roster of 18. And then on April 6, 2022, Membrila made his youthful dream a reality when he took to the field in the 78th minute of FC Tulsa’s Open Cup game, becoming the club’s first academy graduate to make his pro debut in the process.
“I went to Tulsa games as a kid,” Membrila said. “So to make my debut with FC Tulsa, it was incredible. It’s great that I can set a precedent for kids, that dream of playing professionally, to show that they can do it. I was once one of them, just a little kid at Roughneck games a few years ago, looking up to the players. Now I’m here and it shows those little kids in the stands that want to play professionally that they can do it, that it’s possible.”
Like Castaneda, Membrila isn’t looking too far ahead to the future. He is doing whatever he can to continue to grow and challenge for a spot in FC Tulsa’s weekly gameday 18, while also balancing his school and club schedule. Training sometimes twice a day can be a lot, but Membrila knows it’s what separates the good players from the greats.
“I just have to remain focused and grounded,” Membrila said. “Just keep working hard every day in training and those opportunities will come and hopefully, I’ll succeed. Be ready for whenever the opportunity comes and just keep working hard to get better and putting in the extra work every day..”
Both just high school students, Castaneda and Membrila fulfilled dreams they had when they were kids. They had friends and families in the stands when they stepped onto the pitch for the first time, and took it all in with their loved ones when the game ended. It was the end of a journey. But it was also the start of another one.
Now, Castaneda and Membrila have created new dreams. To play collegiate soccer. To become everyday professional athletes. They both recognize the hard work has only just begun. It’s a challenge they both embrace and one they are ready to continue, starting with the next practice, the next game.
“I’ve always said I’ve wanted to be a professional soccer player,” Castaneda said. “Since I was three, that’s always been my goal. And it’s still my goal, even though I did make my professional debut. I want to go further and keep going and keep working to achieve my dreams. And I couldn’t reach my goal or pursue my dreams without the support of my family and teammates. They’ve been amazing throughout everything.”
“I’m just 18 and I made my pro debut, and It’s pretty surreal to do something you’ve dreamt of since you were a little kid,” Membrila added. “I’m very happy to make my debut but I also can’t just be complacent with that and just be happy with that. I’m working hard in training every day to continue that success and to just be ready for whatever comes next.”