SAN ANTONIO – Last Saturday, San Antonio FC found their season at a crossroads.
In the midst of a five-match winless streak, the Alamo City club stared down the barrel of a 2-0 deficit to Reno 1868 at home. A late goal from forward Ever Guzman cut the lead in half right before halftime, but something more would be required to turn the tides.
Head coach Darren Powell looked to the youngest players on the roster for momentum.
Seventeen-year-olds Ethan Bryant and Jose Gallegos each tallied their first goals of the season in the 61st and 62nd minute respectively, powering a SAFC to a dramatic 3-2 victory. The performance earned the club's first points in USL Championship play in nearly a month.
"It was a really good opportunity for me, here at home in front of my family," Gallegos said. "To score there in that environment felt really nice."
"It was nice to break through in a must-win game," Bryant said. "The most important thing was that we got the win."
The pair, both San Antonio natives, have been playing soccer alongside each other for a long time, as part of the club's Elite Training Program.
"That's been the foundation for players to start there and move their way up to the first team," Bryant said. "We started there, and as we excelled, we got the opportunities and we've made the most of them."
"It's always a great moment when you see two young players that have come through our ETP program -- two local boys -- get the headlines by getting the goals," Powell said. "You see that in their celebrations how much it means to them. But it goes deeper than that, because it's not just that the players were able to contribute to the score sheet. It's about being able to contribute to the group, and giving everybody that lift and boost with sheer enthusiasm and effort. They definitely did that."
Adjusting to the professional game's speed and physicality is difficult for anyone, let alone for teenagers. Both have handled that transition remarkably well, thanks to supportive teammates and their own personal focus.
"It's intense, but you get accustomed to it," Gallegos explained. "You just play your game and play to your best qualities. When it comes down to physical differences, there's not much you can do about it. You just have to do what you can."
"The rest of the team makes you feel welcomed, but you're just one of them," Bryant said. "You have to come in with the same mentality. You're not the young guy. You have to be the guy that's going to come in and make an impact just like them."
Bryant began his professional career last season, becoming the youngest goal scorer in club history at just 16 years old. This year, an injury has derailed his progress, but if his performance against Reno is any indicator, Bryant will be back to 100% much sooner than expected.
"With that little setback at the beginning of the year, he's still working his way back in," Powell said. "Saturday's match was a good step forward for him. Ethan's very coachable, he listens and wants to take those ideas on board."
Gallegos, meanwhile, is one of three area natives to have debuted this season. In his first match against the Laredo Heat, Gallegos fit into the offense like a glove, and nearly connected on numerous scoring opportunities. His goal against Reno was a culmination of the effort he's put in.
"It was a cool moment for everybody," Powell said. "What people don't know is Jose was coming into reserve games last year. Since then, we've been able to figure out his whole schooling situation so he can join us at practice. Last week was his first full week with us. We want to see how he progresses. He's got a lot of natural ability and really good natural instincts that he's learned over the years. Now, let's see how he adapts to training with the team every single day."
Both Bryant and Gallegos saw playing time once again in SAFC's 1-1 draw with OKC Energy FC Saturday night. Their names didn't show up on the score sheets, but their impact was noticed. That's what Powell is most focused on.
"It's always about being hungry and humble," Powell explained. "They're young players, so you have to make sure the expectations are kept fairly low, but we want to make sure their effort and hard work are always high. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this game. It doesn't matter what age you are. We're just looking forward to seeing these guys progress."
Although these two have made their presence felt on the professional pitch in recent weeks, they aren't the only teenagers seeing playing time for SAFC. Both Carson Price and Devine's Leo Torres have logged significant minutes this season, and there's also plenty of local talent waiting in the wings, so the impact of their combined breakthrough moment is not lost on Gallegos and Bryant.
"We're the first ones -- the trail blazers," Bryant said. "I think we're like a symbol of hope for them. If they keep working hard and keep doing their thing, then hopefully they'll get the opportunities too."