Never mind that nearly 3,000 miles separate Guatemala and the University of Virginia. For Pablo Aguilar, whose family lives in Guatemala City, Charlottesville felt like a second home long before UVA’s coaches started recruiting him as a soccer player.
In 2011, when Aguilar was in high school at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, his brother, Juan de Dios, graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering. Their sister, Marcela, graduated from the University two years later with a bachelor’s in foreign affairs.
“I remember I came here [to see Juan de Dios] and I loved the University,” Aguilar said. “Not only the soccer part, I love Charlottesville. I think it’s a really nice place, and it’s a really nice university. Then when my sister came, I came and visited her, and I really enjoyed everything.”
When “the coaches told me after a summer camp that they wanted me to join the soccer team,” Aguilar said, “it made the decision much easier.”
Aguilar “had a history with his brother and sister here,” head coach George Gelnovatch said, “and I think his parents love it here. The rest is history.”
Now a redshirt junior – he missed the 2013 season with a foot injury – Aguilar is tied with sophomore forward Edward Opoku for the team scoring lead. Each has 14 points, on six goals and two assists.
An attacking midfielder and dangerous scorer, Aguilar is a fiery competitor who last week was one of three Cavaliers named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference second team, along with Opoku and junior goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell.
“Pablo’s always been a fantastic player,” Caldwell said. “He’s very technical, probably our most creative player, and now he’s found a new level where he’s getting game-winners left and right.”
As the No. 12 overall seed, Virginia earned a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament, whose 48-team field was announced Monday. UVA (10-3-5), in the NCAAs for the 36th consecutive season, will play University of Vermont (13-6-1) or Rider University (13-3-3) in the round of 32 at 1 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.
Aguilar has extensive NCAA tourney experience. In 2014, he was thrust into the spotlight when All-America midfielder Eric Bird suffered an injury in the first minute of UVA’s NCAA opener against UNC-Wilmington. Aguilar replaced Bird and played 64 minutes in the Wahoos’ 3-1 victory.
“I was like, ‘This is my time to shine. This is the opportunity they’re giving me, and I have to take advantage of it,’” Aguilar recalled.
He did so, and then some. Aguilar was named to the All-College Cup team after helping the ’Hoos capture their seventh NCAA title.
In 2015, he started 17 games on a team that had a shorter postseason run. UVA lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round to former ACC rival Maryland in College Park.
This year, the Cavaliers enter the NCAAs with better team chemistry and more reason for optimism. Over their past 11 games, the ’Hoos are 7-1-3.
“I think this group of guys, not only soccer-wise, but also as a group, we’ve come together,” Aguilar said. “We get along really well. Everybody wants to win. Even the players that are not getting a lot of minutes in the games, they really want us to win. They’re really supportive. Every time we score they come onto the field and we all celebrate together. Every win is everyone’s win. It’s not only the players who score or the players who are playing.”
Aguilar’s season has followed an unexpected path. He didn’t break into the starting lineup until late September.
“Maybe last year wasn’t one of my best,” Aguilar said, “but two years ago we won the national championship and it was a good year for me. So coming in as a fourth-year, obviously I was expecting to start. But there were a lot of good players coming in. There was a lot of competition. We were playing a completely different style, a different formation, and other players did better than me in preseason.”
His friends, including teammate Hayes Fountain, urged him “to stay calm,” Aguilar said. “He knew that if I kept working hard I would win my spot. I talked with the coaches, too. They told me to stay calm, to keep working hard, to keep competing and everything. And it was really frustrating at the beginning, but that frustration, that desire to win, that desire to be in the starting lineup, I think helped me out a lot to become a better player, to play stronger at practice, to play stronger in games when I came in.”
Early in the season, Gelnovatch said, Aguilar “was a guy coming in in the second half, and he always did well coming in, and I felt like, ‘OK, we’ve got a role for Pablo. He comes in with 30 minutes left in the game and he’s really adding something.’”
As the season progressed, however, Gelnovatch decided Aguilar had earned – and needed – a larger role.
“The thing with Pablo is, he was doing great coming off the bench, every single game, and he was scoring goals, too, and being dangerous,” Gelnovatch said. “But I could also sense with each game that he wasn’t starting, he was getting frustrated, to a point where I had a talk with him, because it was starting to show a little bit. And he responded. He just kept working, and maybe two games after I talked to him, he was in the starting lineup.
“As a coach, it’s the perfect thing. I’m not saying I thought he was the guy all along and I did this on purpose to make him hungry. That’s not exactly how it happened. But it kind of worked out that way. He was hungry because he wasn’t playing as much, and every time he came on, he wanted to do well and show and impress.
“It’s one thing if it’s a one-off here and there. He has pushed himself past the point of what I thought his consistent ceiling was.”
A foreign affairs major at UVA, Aguilar has dual citizenship. He was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father was working on a master’s degree at the University of St. Thomas.
When Aguilar was 3, the family moved back to Guatemala, where he lived until he enrolled at IMG Academy before his freshman year of high school.
“I heard from a friend that the facilities [at IMG] were great and that there was a lot of opportunity to get seen by college coaches and all that,” Aguilar said. “So I went to IMG for a summer, and I did really well. They wanted me to stay. I was only 15, so it was a really hard decision to make, because I was going to go live by myself in Bradenton, Florida, and I’d never lived by myself before.”
His final two years in Bradenton, his mother and younger brother lived with him, while his father split time between Guatemala and Florida. Aguilar tries to return to Guatemala whenever his schedule permits.
“It’s really different here in the U.S.,” he said. “Guatemala is a poor country. You can see a lot of poverty in the country, especially outside the city where I live. Also, it’s a dangerous country, so you have to be careful of where you are, where you walk around. Here in the U.S., especially in Charlottesville, it’s so secure.
“It’s completely different in Guatemala. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s two different worlds. I think if I would take one of my friends from the soccer team to Guatemala, they would be probably shocked to see how different lives are and how differently people live.”
His older brother spent one spring on the soccer team at UVA before deciding to concentrate on his studies. Juan de Dios earned an MBA from Harvard this year and now works in Guatemala, where their father has an investment management firm, Invercorp International Ltd.
Aguilar is on track to graduate from UVA in December 2017, after which he hopes to play pro soccer, ideally in Major League Soccer. Then he plans to pursue a master’s degree in the United States before eventually returning to Guatemala, as his brother did.
At UVA, he’s one of the many players who give the men’s soccer program an international flavor. Aguilar’s teammates have ties to Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Trinidad and Tobago, Spain, Ghana, Rwanda and Portugal.
“We are a very diverse team, but I think we’ve come together as a team,” Aguilar said.
Center back Sergi Nus is from Barcelona, Spain, and “for me it’s fun to have another Spanish speaker on the team, because it’s my first year I can speak fluent Spanish with someone,” said Aguilar, who also speaks flawless English.
“But we all get along really well, and it’s really fun and interesting to learn about different cultures and how people grew up and where people grew up and how different everything is and how we can still get along with each other and learn from each other.”