Most days, Juan Salazar climbs into his Toyota Corolla, puts on an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, and makes the 45-minute drive south, from San Marcos to Point Loma Nazarene University.
“I don’t catch a lot of traffic, it goes by really fast,” said Salazar, a graduate student in the PLNU Organizational Leadership program.
The 38 miles between the small apartment Salazar shares with his mother, Marth, in San Marcos and school is nothing compared to the roughly 3,300 miles he traveled to be here.
“It was really hard in the beginning,” Salazar said. “I didn’t speak English and I didn’t know anything about [American] culture.”
At 16, Salazar made the decision to pursue a better life for himself. He and his mother packed up their lives in Medellin, Colombia, said goodbye to family and friends and moved in with his older sister in her home in San Marcos.
“I came because I wanted to look for better opportunities for me and my family,” Salazar said, in between his Tuesday classes. “Little by little I got myself into the mindset of okay I have to learn English, I have to make friends. After a year I started to feel like I belong here.”
In 2016, he enrolled at Mission Hills High School, beginning the awkward process of assimilation.
“When you change countries, you tend to be shy because you worry you are going to make a mistake or your accent will sound funny,” Salazar remembered. “I had a conversation with myself, I was like, ‘Okay bro, you are going to have to learn how to speak, not be shy.’ I started training my ear. I started leaving my comfort zone and making friends with people who only spoke English.”
The transition was difficult, but the one place Salazar could count on finding himself at ease didn’t change from one country to the next: the soccer field.
“I started playing when I was 4 years old,” Salazar said. “It’s the only sport I’ve played my whole life. I was a kid with a lot of energy and my mom wanted me to do something after school. I couldn’t stay still. My mom put me in soccer, and I fell in love with the sport.”
Salazar didn’t play high school soccer. Instead, he played at the higher academy level, with Nomads Soccer Club in La Jolla as well as with the San Diego Surf Academy, competing against teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders academy squads.
“Colombia is more flair and skill, the U.S. is more physical and running,” Salazar said. “It is more individual talent there, here it is more about the team effort.”
“In Colombia, the facilities are super bad,” he added. “Every field is tough to play on. Here, every pitch is perfect with turf or grass.”
Salazar, a six-foot forward with a knack for knocking the ball through the net, spent four seasons on the Cal State San Marcos team before transferring as a graduate student to Point Loma Nazarene for his final season of college eligibility.
“Juan is a good player,” said PLNU head coach Phil Wolf. “He’s very ambitious and hardworking. He has some real quality in his game. In his single year that we have him we are trying to change a few things — trying to get him to mesh better with others. He’s probably been our most dangerous and productive player” through the first four games of the season.
Salazar made an immediate contribution during the Aug. 31 season opener against Cal State San Bernardino, notching an assist and two shots on goal in a 4-2 loss. Against Cal Poly Pomona in the following game, Salazar scored his first goal as a Sea Lion.
Five days later, in the team’s first win of the season, Salazar broke a 3-3 tie in the 87th minute with a shot from his left foot that just eluded the outstretched hands of Seattle Pacific’s diving keeper.
“We want to win the conference — we’ve never won the conference before,” Salazar said. “After that, we want to go as far as possible — maybe we can win a national championship. For me, I want to score as many goals as possible and help the team as an asset.”
“I’m in the best shape mentally, physically and spiritually that I’ve been in since I started” playing college soccer, he added.
So much has changed for Salazar since he first arrived in San Marcos.
“I went back to Colombia once in 2020 for my brother’s wedding,” Salazar said. “I felt like a whole different person. I’ve built my whole life here in the U.S. I felt like I was visiting my home country and I wasn’t part of it anymore.”
With his final season of collegiate soccer underway, Salazar said his backup plan after the final whistle blows is to be a businessman and run a company.
But his dream, what he is working toward right now, is a career in professional soccer.
“My goal is to keep playing,” Salazar said. “I want to be a professional soccer player, either here or overseas. It’s why I came to this program. I see a potential here for me. If I listen to the coaching staff and the team does well, I think I’ll be in a good position.
“I have the talent, the discipline and the desire to make it. At the end of the day, you need a little bit of luck.”