Before Minnesota United striker Christian Ramirez was scoring goals for fun and yearning for a chance to prove himself with the United States national team, he was an NCAA center mid ready to quit soccer altogether.
Ramirez, 25, is in the driver’s seat for his second NASL Golden Boot in three seasons, with 14 on the year and 46 since joining the club in 2014. Toss in 14 assists, what’s certain to be a third-straight NASL Best XI spot, and a 6-foot-2 frame, and you’ve got one hot commodity.
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But in 2010 he was a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, struggling to find playing time on a loaded team with Luis Silva (Tigres UANL), Michael Boxall (New Zealand national team), and Danny Barrera (Sacramento Republic).
For a kid who had led the Olympic Development Program in scoring and snared the league’s national golden boot, it was heart-wrenching. He was ready to be done with the sport.
“I was on the verge of it,” Ramirez told ProSoccerTalk. “It was a tough time. I grew up and for everything I had worked so hard for — I had an ODP National Championship, an ODP Golden Boot, a Cal South player of the year — I got to college and I was the last one on the bench. I don’t know if it was the system, or the style of play, or maybe I just wasn’t on the coach’s map. I couldn’t find a place on the field.”
Fortunately, his PDL coaches thought the world of him, just in a different spot. The California native spent the summers after his freshman and sophomore years playing for Orange County Blue Star, and he enjoyed working with John Spencer and Michael Osguera.
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So when he decided to leave UCSB, he found a home with Osguera in the NAIA. After a position change, the goals poured forth like water at Concordia University in Irvine, to the tune of 44 goals and 18 assists in two seasons.
“He took me under his wing and promised me we’d find that love for the game that I had lost at Santa Barbara,” Ramirez said. “He moved me up front which I really didn’t agree with at the time, growing up and always playing center mid, but he thought I had a knack for the goal and I was always in good areas so he said let’s take away some of your defensive responsibilities and put guys around you that will run off of you and it worked. I had a blast my last two years of college.”
That happens when you adapt to a new position quickly with the skill set of a midfield maestro. Ramirez’s size makes him a handful for defenders, but his vision sets him apart. He says he’s “unorthodox but unselfish,” and loves to assist as much as score.
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“I’m not your typical striker,” he said. “I won’t beat anyone in a 40-yard dash. I won’t outjump anyone, but I like to think my soccer IQ is up there with the best. I like to be faster with my brain and my feet, to get in situations where the defense isn’t expecting me to pull the trigger.”
Ramirez began his professional journey with USL side Charlotte Eagles in 2013, scoring 8 goals as a rookie. He signed for United the next season, and tied a league record with 20 goals.
The Loons haven’t missed the playoffs since he arrived, and are currently on pace to win a wild card spot for this season’s edition. This time, it’s behind manager Carl Craig, an unorthodox employee in his own right.
“He’s guided me in working on my weaknesses and developing my game,” Ramirez said. “At the end of the day he lets me play and lets me figure it out. He gives me the outline, and expects me to go out there and fill that outline out.”
Minnesota is headed for Major League Soccer next year, and Ramirez says the league might not be prepared for what’s coming its way with the Loons’ fan base.
“It’s been amazing,” Ramirez says. “The Dark Clouds and True North Elite make, like they claim, a weird type of atmosphere. Much different than U.S. soccer is accustomed to. It’s exciting to see them grow each home game with new faces and new chants. It’ll be a new type of fan base for MLS when Minnesota makes the jump.”
Ramirez may or may not be a part of the move. He his contract does not feature an MLS guarantee, and he’s “basically free” after this season. The scorer likes it in Minnesota, but is open to anything that helps him reach his goals.
He’s scored against Sporting KC in the U.S. Open Cup, and has performed well at every level of competition. He’s watched as former teammate Miguel Ibarra went from the NASL to the USMNT and Club Leon, and knows people have noticed his high-volume production. Rumors from MLS destinations to Germany and Sweden have popped up over the past few years, and Jurgen Klinsmann has noticed the striker.
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So, yeah, Ramirez’s career goals are high.
“Someday hopefully I’ll be able to represent the USA, even just to see where I’m at in that category,” Ramirez said. “In regards to my future, I’m open to anything. I know a soccer’s a business, and I know how cutthroat it is so I’m open to going abroad, I’m open to staying in Minnesota or somewhere else in the States.”
Ramirez is not bothered by the uncertainty, given his past. To go from little used sophomore midfielder to in-demand NASL-topping striker makes a player anything but desperate.
“I’m excited to be in this position. If you would’ve told me six years ago I’d have leverage at the top of the goal scoring charts in the NASL, I would’ve thought you were crazy. I’m humbled to be in the position I’m in, and excited for the options I have moving forward.”