Rafael Jauregui made history as the youngest player to hit the field for Sacramento Republic FC last season at just 15 while on a USL Academy contract. Now a year older and officially a professional player, Jauregui has proven the success of the Sacramento academy through his professionalism and talent shown at a young age.
Julian “JuJu” Chavez, meanwhile, has been training and playing with the senior team for two seasons, playing over 200 minutes and scoring three goals since his debut. The 19-year-old winger plays with the senior team under a USL Academy contract, allowing him to play while retaining his college eligibility.
The two young standouts are among six players aged 19 or younger that have played this season for Republic FC as a professional or USL Academy signing for the side after coming through the club’s Academy system. They sat down with USL Academy to discuss their journeys from breaking through the academy to playing with and against veterans twice their age. In alignment with Hispanic Heritage Month, Jauregui and Chavez also discussed their Mexican heritage and the significance it has had on their soccer careers.
Rafa Jauregui (top row, second from the left) and JuJu Chavez (bottom row, third from the left) in the starting XI for an Academy match
First things first, where did your passions for the game start?
JuJu Chavez: For me, it started when I was a kid because the sport has always been in my family. My dad played and my grandpa played, all my cousins and uncles played, so it was just bought out to me at an early age and I loved it ever since I played it.
Rafa Jauregui: For me, my dad is the one that introduced [soccer] to me. He would always play in Sunday League games and would bring me when he played. It's always been around since I was little.
Has your Mexican heritage influenced your love of the game?
JC: Yes, definitely. It plays a huge part in it because they love the game, they go crazy for their teams, everybody has their own team. It plays a huge part but that's also just me loving the game and being addicted to it.
RJ: Just having that feeling as a kid made me want it even more and more. My parents pushed me to like the game and me playing the game made me fall in love with it.
What does your heritage mean to you?
JC: It's allowed me to represent a lot of Mexicans, especially here in Sacramento, and to be a good role model to little Mexican kids. A lot of them love to play the game too. It feels good to be able to represent everybody on the big stage.
RJ: The Mexican culture is very beautiful. We get together a lot, we're family-oriented. The food we eat, the drinks we drink, the parties we throw, they are all great.
Rafa Jauregui taking a shot in a friendly against Liga MX's FC Juárez | Photo courtesy of Sacramento Republic FC
How does it feel to play for your hometown team?
JC: It's a dream, for sure. It's definitely a dream. It's been one of my dreams since I got into the academy and was obviously my main goal was to get to the top team and score. And to do all of that, it's crazy. I had the posters on my wall since I was a kid and going to their games and watching as a family, it means something different to put on the uniform, especially for your home team. And to score a goal? It’s insane.
RJ: To be able to represent my home city, it's a big deal to me and it's a big deal for my family as well. It's a great feeling.
What was it like to step on to the pitch for the first time, knowing you were up against veteran pros?
JC: It makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you want to play better because you want to prove yourself to everybody. Even though you're younger, you want to still show that you can play with them. So I just feel like it puts a certain mentality on us that helps us, helps our confidence a little more than other players. It's a dream to play there, but we always work to get to the next level.
RJ: It's a good feeling. A whole different level of intensity than playing with the Academy, which is good. It helps you learn and helps you grow.
What was your experience like being under an Academy contract?
JC: Being with the First Team, seeing all [the pros] play, you just learned so much, not just on the field but off in how you carry yourself as a player. They taught me a lot and they helped me grow, so I feel like it's a good spot to be.
RJ: It helps you make the decision whether you want to go to college or want to go the pathway of being a pro. It gives you options, which is always good.
JuJu, what was it like to score your first professional goal?
JC: It was a feeling I've never felt before. It was good. It would have been better to do it in front of fans, but it felt good because it was in the last minute, so it was a good game-winner, and we needed those points. It was definitely a dream that came true.
Rafa, what was that moment like to sign a professional contract?
RJ: It was a huge moment for me, finding out that it was going to be offered to me. Putting pen to paper, it was very big, very huge, not just for me but for my family. Having people from my family going up to that announcement and doing all that was a good moment.
JuJu, you are still under an Academy contract. What is the best thing about it?
JC: I do feel comfortable knowing that I could go to college or stay here. They show me all the things I need to do to become a pro, which they know I want to do. It means a lot to be with the team day in and day out. I am learning a lot. They continue to teach me more everyday.
Rafa, you made history as the youngest Sacramento player to hit the pitch. What does it mean to you, knowing your team has faith in its young talent?
RJ: It feels really good, knowing that they have the trust and faith in me to play me in games where I can possibly make a difference. It’s good knowing that they had the faith in me to even bring me up because I was really young when they brought me up. And I bet for other kids looking up to trying to play too, it's also good for them. [Sacramento] has done it before and they can do it again.
Last question for you both, what advice do you have for those academy kids looking to make that jump to the pro team?
JC: You may have heard it 1,000 times, but one thing is to never quit. You know that's true. There's plenty of times where I could have quit. Everybody goes through ups and downs. There was a whole year in the academy where I barely played, but I never gave up. You got to stay positive.
RJ: I would say to have a good mentality and not let the downs push you too far down. Always stay positive because if you stay positive and stay optimistic, good things will come, good things will follow.