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Global Oct 30, 2012

Falls Church, Va. native O.J. Porteria thriving with Philippines national team

By Charles Boehm

It’s not often that a player stars for his varsity soccer team while at the same time building a career at the international level, but for more than a year, O.J. Porteria has been doing exactly that – and the national team in question just happens to be halfway across the world.

Porteria graduated from Falls Church High School (Va.) in June, and he has already become a regular on the Philippines national team after being spotted by the technical staff during a tryout for Filipino-American and Filipino-Canadian players in San Francisco in March 2011. Asked to become a full-time member of a residency program initiated by the Philippines’ German coach Michael Weiss, Porteria spent the last year and a half shuttling back and forth between the Pacific nation and Virginia as he wrapped up his high school education.

“He’s supposed to be going to VCU [Virginia Commonwealth]. We went there and they really like him a lot. However, the Philippines national team called him,” OJ’s mother, Jocelyn Porteria, told Soccer Wire this month. “So right now our options are really open but as far as I know, OJ decided to stay there, because he’s having the time of his life. I think he will stay there and study over there.

“Fairfax [County Public Schools] was very generous to us,” she added, noting that O.J. timed his trips in order not to miss more than 15 consecutive days of class and thus be automatically withdrawn.

He was allowed to pack extra sessions into the days he could attend and took other classes online, enabling him to graduate with his peers on June 20. Now he’s making his living in Manila, playing for the national team – affectionately nicknamed the “Azkals,” which translates to “street dogs” – as well as local club Kaya FC, and preparing to begin college courses in January at De La Salle University, which his older brother Ralph already attends.

“They’re sharing a car, although the Azkals have accommodation – including food, driver, everything,” said the boys’ mother. “They [national team players] get a [living] allowance which, over there, is a lot already. Then every training, they also get money for that. If they’re included in the roster, it’s another bonus. If they win the game, that’s another bonus. If he scores a goal, that’s another bonus. So that’s how they do incentives.”

A Falls Church native, O.J. rose through the Northern Virginia youth scene in classic fashion, picking up the game at the tender age of four with Little River SC before playing for Team America FC under veteran coach Larry Dunn from age seven on. His attacking qualities drew the attention of the D.C. United Academy – and eventually, the country he now calls home.

A small but skillful striker who can also play on the wings, O.J. is one of several players of Filipino heritage discovered overseas who are helping the Azkals rise from perennial whipping boys into genuine contenders in Southeast Asian soccer. In this respect he is joined by fellow Northern Virginian Nate Burkey and Californian Demitrius Omphroy, who previously spent time with Major League Soccer side Toronto FC, as well as several others plying their trade in the English, German, Dutch and Scandinavian pro leagues.

“The most popular sport there is basketball – it’s weird, because, you know, we’re short, short people. They love basketball over there,” explained Jocelyn Porteria with a laugh. “However, football actually started a long time ago there…This businessman [team manager Dan Palami], he recruited a lot of half-Filipinos, mainly in Europe.

“They became famous because they started winning, which they didn’t believe they could do. So they’ve become popular there now.”

The Azkals have already been eliminated from World Cup 2014 qualifying but strong results in regional play have seen them rise to 147th in the latest FIFA World Rankings, their highest-ever position. Next month they head to Thailand for the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s championship tournament, with high hopes despite a daunting opening match in Bangkok against the event’s co-hosts.

Porteria is one of the youngest players on the team, though his quickness and dynamic dribbling have made him a favorite of the coaching staff as well as the Azkals’ increasingly devoted fans.

“Everyone’s telling him he’s so much fun to watch,” said his proud mother, who admits that her first preference was for O.J. to pursue a career closer to home in MLS. “He’s only 17 and he just graduated from high school, but he’s so mature with what he’s showing … They’re saying he’s very composed. He’s so relaxed while playing.”

Inspired by Weiss, Porteria and his fellow Azkals nurture big dreams and bold goals, making this particular “Yank abroad” one to watch.

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