In Spain, soccer is like religion, and because of that, it is normal or even ideal to have a son who is endlessly passionate and faithful to the sport for some Spaniards.
But for Titans forward Samuel Goñi’s parents it was just the opposite. They valued academics far more than athletics.
Born and raised in Marcilla, Spain with a father who is an architect, a sister who’s an engineer and a mother who owns a furniture business, Goñi was left begrudgingly focused on academia, even though his real loyalty was to the field.
However, without parents to teach him the ways of soccer, Goñi let the rich Spanish culture do it for him.
“At three years old we started playing with friends in the schoolyard,” Goñi said. “Like all my friends, and everyone in Spain, soccer is like a religion. All you have to do is play, play, play.”
Coming from a family who didn’t have any real soccer-lovers, Goñi was forced to make significant sacrifices to follow his dream, including improvising goal posts in his longtime friend Hector Cambra’s backyard.
Cambra and Goñi were not only born to parents who were already friends, but their independent love of soccer became a staple of their relationship.
“From a young age, the first thing everyone wants is a ball to play football, ” Cambra said. “We would go alone with the ball to go play where we could. We would run away from home to go play.”
Although Goñi’s parents didn’t enjoy soccer to the extent that the rest of the country did, that didn’t stop them from supporting their son.
They would still go to his games, and Goñi would often try and get his father to find the same passion for soccer.
“My father would come with me to the park every weekend. Now I think about it and I tell him that to play was probably very tiring because I would always say ‘Let’s go play. Let’s go play,’” Goñi said.
For the first few years, the game was just a pastime for Goñi to hang out with his friends. It wasn’t until he was 16 years old when he was recruited by CA Osasuna, a club soccer team in Pamplona, Spain, that Goñi realized the game was his calling.
“There I started to believe that I could really get to something with football,” Goñi said. “I began to take it more seriously.”
In the academy, Goñi figured out what kind of player he truly was. He focused on being the best among his friends, and then the best on the team. Goñi knew he would need to be better than everyone if he wanted to make his dream a reality.
Following his graduation, Goñi chose not to continue his studies and moved back home to focus on soccer. He coached teams, played in clubs and occasionally helped his mother in her furniture store.
Although he was still playing soccer freely, Goñi was lost.
“It was a moment that I did not know what to do because I saw high school finish and I was just playing soccer, I was not studying or doing anything,” Goñi said.
Things looked up for Goñi soon after when he was contacted by an agency and offered an opportunity to play soccer and study in the United States.
There was one twist: Goñi didn’t speak enough English to join an NCAA soccer program.
With less than a month to decide whether he would take the opportunity, Goñi had little knowledge on how athletic divisions worked, but he took the chance anyway.
A day before the scheduled flight, Goñi bought himself a single, one-way flight to Tennessee where he would enroll into Bethel University to play in its NAIA soccer program.
Cambra was not surprised at Goñi’s spontaneous decision to move across the world, and said he knew that Goñi’s adventurous nature was going to take him from Spain.
“He said ‘Let’s try the United States’ and I would say ‘No,’” Cambra said. “And in a year he came here.”
Goñi remained in Tennessee for two years but might not have gone if he knew that NAIA schools were lower divisions, a realization that led to soccer being the reason he finally took his studies seriously.
With the help of his English-speaking roommates, Goñi practiced his English every day, often using dictionaries to help him with unfamiliar words. He also picked up and obsession with Chick-Fil-A, which he said is one of the things he’ll miss most should he ever leave the U.S.
“I think it’s the sauce,” Goñi said. “In Spain I do not eat a lot of fast food, and here I don’t eat it much, I try to eat healthy. So inside fast food I think it’s the healthiest thing out there. I love it.”
As he adjusted, the same program that brought him to the U.S. reached out to him about several universities that could offer him a better opportunity to get exposure.
One of his options was the Titans, and Goñi liked the way Cal State Fullerton played because it’s similar to the Spanish style he grew up learning. Most of all, the thought of living in California appealed to Goñi, so he sent film to CSUF.
His highlights caught the eye of a Titans assistant coach, and once Head Coach George Kuntz got word of Goñi, he decided to take a look at the Spanish player.
Soon he had no doubt he wanted to add Goñi to the Titans’ roster, so Kuntz made an offer.
“He has high work ethic, very focused, very passionate and very focused on performance, and has a professional approach to the game,” Kuntz said. “You can hear it from everyone, but we saw it here.”
Goñi accepted and was ecstatic, but he wouldn’t get to wear Titans colors for his first season.
Just before he would find out if he was eligible to play his first game against UCLA, a bad step during practice cost him the rest of the year.
Goñi tore his ACL.
“I did not expect it at all. I remember I started crying when they told me,” Goñi said. “I felt like the world was falling on me. I thought that I had no future in football and that I would never play again.”
Alone, with his dreams halted, Goñi underwent surgery.
While he was initially reluctant to have his sister join him from Spain to help him recover and ease his mother’s worries, Goñi was grateful for her help. With Goñi unable to get out of bed for the first week following his surgery, his sister made him food and took care of him before the task of supporting him was left to his team.
Jacob Cini, his roommate and teammate, accompanied Goñi to rehabilitation sessions for a similar injury, which Goñi said helped his recovery time go better than expected. His team and coaches often checked up on him to get his mind off of his injury, but Goñi’s return to the field wouldn’t come without frustration with himself and his body.
“I had a worse time when I came back from the injury. I was good to play, but I did not feel good football-wise. I wanted to play better but I could not do it,” Goñi said.
Although Goñi sees himself as an inferior version of the player he was before his injury, the numbers say otherwise.
— Titan M Soccer (@CSUFMensSoccer) October 29, 2017
Goñi led the Titans with nine goals for the 2017-18 season, and was decorated with accolades and recognitions like Big West Player of the Week and all-region honors.
But Goñi’s humble character, as Kuntz described, gave him the opportunity to grow as a player.
“I think he really came around. His confidence came back and we knew it was going to take a while, but I think as we got closer to league he picked up the tempo and he proved what he came here for,” Kuntz said. “I think he has a huge upside, I think he has a big future in whatever he does. Hopefully it’s soccer, but I think he has a huge future.”
His coaches aren’t the only ones to notice a boost in confidence in Goñi.
Cambra spent the last three months as one of Goñi’s roommates, and although Goñi doesn’t feel he’s made best of his time on the field while playing for Fullerton, Cambra thinks he’s better than before.
“When I came here in September, he seemed like more of an American just in the way of being,” Cambra said. “He has more desire to do things, more freedom. On the subject of football, I think it has helped him a lot and I think if he is lucky he can play professionally.”
Now that the Titans’ season is over, Goñi is focused on finishing his studies and traveling, as well as continuing to recover and make himself better. Though at times he feels he plays poorly, he looks to his kinesiology degree as a backup plan, something his parents always instilled in him.
“My parents have always told me to do what I like. My mother has always taught me to try to study, that I have a lot of time in my life to work,” Goñi said. “I’ve always studied. I do not like it very much, but I’m still here in college.”
Although he had to leave his family behind and miss out on watching his younger cousins grow up, Goñi said his sacrifices now will benefit him later. He firmly believes his love of soccer has given him everything: A second language, a higher education and most of all, a family abroad.
“I live day by day, I do not think much about the future,” Goñi said. “Football comes first. Football is my life, and all I have in my life is because of football.”