Angel Merino’s talent was instantly clear to the La Center boys soccer team.
Within 15 minutes of the team’s first practice, the foreign exchange student from Madrid, Spain, teamed up with senior Brendon Leach to score four goals on the Wildcats’ starting defense.
“It was just an instant connection,” third-year La Center coach Sanjay Prasad said.
Merino, a junior, has provided plenty of thrilling moments and needed contributions to the 6-1 Wildcats this season. More importantly, La Center’s soccer team has given Merino the American experience he craved when he journeyed from Spain last August.
When Merino first arrived in Clark County, most entertainment venues were closed due to COVID-19. School was fully remote.
“I was really hurting with friends,” Merino said. “When I came here I didn’t know I was going to have online school. I have (spent) a lot of months being at home every day.”
Merino turned to the best way he knew to establish relationships: sports.
Earlier this year, he joined the golf team. In Spain, golf is primarily reserved for the wealthy, he said.
“The first golf practice was the first time in my life I took up a golf club,” Merino said. “I discovered I love golf too.”
When the soccer season came around, Merino really hit his stride. He has played soccer his entire life in Spain. His father raised him as a Real Madrid fan.
The American game was much more physical than in Spain, however. The small-statured Merino, who has struggled with knee issues through much of his playing days, had to adapt.
“I used to, back in Spain, train three days a week,” Merino said. “Once I got here and the season started, there are five trainings a week plus a match, depending on the week. That had a big effect on my legs at the beginning, but now I’m used to it.”
Merino, who needed rides to practice, became good friends with senior teammate and importantly, licensed driver, Logan Grindle. The exchange student was welcomed into Grindle’s friend group and introduced to drive-through fast food and bonfires by the river.
He ate chicken and biscuits and Twinkies for the first time. Grindle joked that Merino gained five pounds once the two started to hang out.
While Merino still misses Spanish cuisine — his favorite food being jamón, a dried cured ham — he’s taken a liking to McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
“It has definitely been a really good experience,” Merino said. “Not only because I’m learning a lot of things, and that was one of the main goals, but also because I’ve met a lot of amazing people that hopefully I will keep in contact with my whole life.”
His teammates and coaches, too, have learned from him. Whether it’s a new way to run a drill on the field or an appreciation for culture outside of America, La Center soccer is grateful to have Merino in the program this year. He returns to Spain at the end of the school year.
“He’s a very good kid and we’re just lucky to have him here at La Center,” Grindle said.
The Wildcats host Columbia Adventist on senior night on Thursday, where Merino will be recognized alongside the La Center seniors. La Center starts the district playoffs the following week.