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AZ United: Hometown captain prepares to be unique role model

Rob Valentino is back home in Phoenix and on the verge of his first home game playing with his hometown team. And he looks forward to provide youth soccer players in the Valley something he didn't have growing up: a player to emulate.

Take a look back in time. Take a real long look. And you'll see Rob Valentino.

You'll see him before he signed with, and became the captain of, Arizona United. You'll see him before he won two USL championships with Orlando City SC and a 2011 USL Defensive Player of the Year. You'll see him before brief stints with FC Tampa Bay, Colorado Rapids and the New England Revolution. You'll see him before being named the WCC Player of the year his junior year and the WCC Defensive Player of the Year in his sophomore season at the University of San Francisco.

Keep looking and you'll spot Valentino even before he and his youth club teammates at Sereno Soccer Club won a state championship and lost in the national finals.

All the way back there is a young Valentino in Phoenix, Arizona, playing soccer with his friends and lacking a tangible soccer role model. A player he could watch in person and interact with in the community. A person he could be when he played in front of imaginary crowds of thousands.

Today, Valentino is a man. He has played in front of crowds of thousands. And on Saturday, April 25, at Arizona United's home opener, he's going to become that role model he never had.

"I think about when I was in the backyard kicking the ball," Valentino said. "I probably would've been like, 'Hey, I want to be this guy' when I (was) playing with my friends. And hopefully a bunch of us can be that for little kids. We can be the ones that they're in the backyard (pretending to be)."

Despite the added significance of his first home opener in front of his hometown crowd, Valentino isn't going to let emotions get the best of him.

"My family has watched me play so it should be no pressure from that standpoint," Valentino said. "But you know I'm just excited. I'm excited to be involved with this club and all the great things that they're doing."

Part of that is acting as a role model for local youth players. Valentino spoke about the importance players like himself and his teammates can have in helping develop young players in the area.

He talked about young soccer players having the chance to watch high-level soccer in person, mimicking the moves of their favorite players and then getting a chance to meet them off the pitch, whether it's during post-game autograph sessions, community events or on the area training fields during the offseason.

"Hopefully they can get to know us on a personal level as well," Valentino said. "This is huge. It's giving back what we never got as a kid in this home state."

Valentino is no stranger to helping grow a soccer club from the grassroots. He helped grow Orlando City Soccer Club into a USL juggernaut that was tapped to join MLS. He became such a fan favorite, that during Orlando City's inaugural match, the Orlando City supporter's group (THe Iron Lion Firm) made a mini tifo honoring "those who got us here," including Valentino.

But while Valentino valued his time in Orlando, and while he sees similarities between Orlando's beginnings and United's, he knows this experience will be much different.

"It's just really cool," Valentino said. "In Orlando it became home, but I didn't have any memories being a kid there. (Now) every morning on the way to practice, I drive by my high school. ... This is where my kids will grow up. It's just really fun. I have friends that I've known for 15 years in the stands and things like that are really special. To be able to do it with this club is really awesome."

Now it's time to look ahead. To look past the day Valentino eventually hangs his cleats after playing for his hometown team. And look past the hundreds of young Valley players who have watched Arizona United in person and have fallen in love with their favorite players and have started mimicking their signature moves.

And there's a young Phoenix soccer player in the backyard with his friends.

And he's telling them all, "I'm Valentino."