In professional sports, all rookies experience that “Welcome to the League” moment, where they gaze at their surroundings and realize they’ve made it to the big time.

Sometimes, it’s scoring that memorable first goal on the pro stage, or the first time they covered their boyhood icon one-on-one in the open field. That intoxicating introduction to the professional game sticks with an athlete for a lifetime, especially when a newcomer jumps straight from the college ranks to the upper echelon of his sport.

Cloaked in a dark blue Vancouver, British Columbia, Whitecaps jersey with his last name stretched horizontally across the back, former Westview High boys’ soccer legend Erik Hurtado accompanied his Whitecaps teammates to midfield for the national anthem in anticipation of the squad’s Major League Soccer contest against San Jose. by: PHOTO BY BOB FRID - VANCOUVER WHITECAPS 2013 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)*** - Former Westview Wildcat Erik Hurtado was the fifth overall pick of the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2013 SuperDraft.

As Vancouver’s newly-christened fifth pick of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Hurtado set foot on Buck Shaw Stadium, which just so happened to be the same venue he roamed as a star at Santa Clara University. Hurtado surveyed the landscape he’d once scorched as a Bronco, and looked down at his chest to guarantee that patch on his right pectoral really said “MLS” on it. A recently named starter in just his fourth game as a pro, Hurtado’s childhood ambition was brought to fruition.

“This time I was in the Whitecap uniform, and I had all my teammates and friends from Santa Clara there in the stands, and they were all just yelling and screaming,” said Hurtado. “I was like ‘Wow, this is I’m a pro now.’ It’s been great, I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life, and now being at this level and living this life, it’s just been awesome. All I’ve ever wanted to do is play soccer and to play it every day is amazing.”

Vision of the futureby: PHOTO BY BOB FRID - VANCOUVER WHITECAPS 2013 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)*** - Hurtados playmaking ability got him on the field early as he started in his fourth game as a professional.

Growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hurtado was fascinated with the way international megastars like Brazil’s Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos pirouetted with the ball, how they trifled with the defense and blasted balls into the net. Their creativity sparked a vision inside Hurtado’s young mind as he predominated rec league games across the Northwest. He wanted to be a pro, to do what he loved and get paid for it at the same time.

During his time as a Wildcat, Hurtado evolved from a 4-foot-11 freshman with auspicious talent into a 5-foot-9, 170-pound scoring machine who won two state club titles with the Westside Metros and helped Westview take a pair of Metro League crowns. Hurtado’s YouTube videos from his Westview tenure are the stuff of legend. The fabled forward with mercurial speed, absurd ball control and a penchant for the hair-raising highlight on pitch scored 54 goals and 23 assists in just a little over three seasons.

The game was simple back then. Hurtado was so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field that he could go out and mimic the moves of his idols, the ones he’d practiced hundreds of times as a youth. There are clips from his senior year in 2009 that are borderline laughable as the fresh-faced Hurtado dances in and out of four or even five defenders at a time, the ball seemingly glued to his right foot. Hurtado was a marked man from his sophomore year on, but that didn’t prevent him from setting the state ablaze on his way to two 6A State Player of the Year awards.

“In high school soccer, you just go out there and have fun,” said Hurtado. “There wasn’t really too much on the plate. You just go out there and express yourself.”

Now, at the foremost level of American soccer, Hurtado said he’s more of a complete player. At Westview Hurtado said he only trusted the players who played for his club team. Hurtado was a little more of a bull-headed competitor who thirsted for goals and wins, but only on his wings.

by: PHOTO BY BOB FRID - VANCOUVER WHITECAPS 2013 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) - Vancouver rookie Erik Hurtado scored 54 goals and had 23 assists in just over three years at Westview.

Leader on the field

Playing with better talent around him both at Santa Clara and now in Vancouver has opened a whole new world to Hurtado. He admitted to being more of a consenting passer and more accepting as a teammate.

“I’m a lot more mature now as a player,” noted Hurtado. “Back then I kind of realized my level of talent, and now I’ve opened my game. I’ve learned how to find people in open spaces, move off the ball, how to talk and be a leader on the field.”

The Portland Timbers tried to sign him to a Homegrown Player contract when Hurtado was coming out of Santa Clara in 2012, seeing that the former Wildcat had played for its U23 squad the past two summers. The MLS denied the Timbers’ request, so Hurtado entered the SuperDraft and prepared himself to go anywhere in the league. New England, Houston and Washington, D.C., all were possible wooers for Hurtado, but Vancouver scooped up the striker at pick No. 5, keeping the Oregon native on the West Coast. Vancouver is just a short flight from Portland or a day’s worth of driving, so while playing for the Timbers as the hometown hero, Hurtado said he’s pleased playing across the border.

“It would’ve been cool to play for my hometown, but I really like Vancouver,” said Hurtado. “The city is awesome, the fans are amazing, the team is great, and so is the staff. I’m not too far from home. I have friends and family come up to visit, so that’s great.”

Rookie campaign

Hurtado’s been plagued by injuries in his rookie campaign as he missed two games due to a pulled hamstring and two more contests because of a stress fracture in his left foot. As of Monday, he hadn’t scored his first goal, though one scoring chance against Columbus was wiped away because of an offsides call. In his starting debut versus San Jose, Hurtado beat his defender and broke into the keeper’s box, but his shot went wide and high over the near post.

The speed of the game, the churlish physicality of each contest is contrary to anything Hurtado’s ever encountered. Windows of scoring chances shut much quicker in the MLS than they did in college. A half step too early or too late and all of sudden a defender is smothering you in the midfield. Open field gallops and clean looks at the goal are in short supply, Hurtado admits. He’s only had three shots on goal in 11 games.

Yet, the unremittingly confident 22-year-old trusts that his heyday is coming. The first time Hurtado played organized soccer as a 5-year-old, he bagged nine goals. As the West Coast Conference’s 2012 Player of the Year, Hurtado racked up 10 goals on 19 shots and tacked on five assists. He’s used to scoring at a high clip and his past history suggests it’s just a matter of time until that first pro tally is iced.

“I just love scoring goals,” said Hurtado. “It’s such an adrenaline rush, you just get hyped and want to score again and again and again.

“I don’t think scoring that first goal is going to make me feel like ‘Oh, I’m a pro’ or anything. I deserve to be here now. I feel like I am a pro, but my job on the field is to score goals and get assists, so that’s what I need to focus on doing.”

High intensity

Hurtado’s come to realize he needs to play the way he’s been playing his entire life. He’s sticking to what got him to the pros and believes he shouldn’t have to change his style or the kind of player he is. Hurtado said he takes advice from the coaches and players and attempts to adopt that into his game.

“It’s definitely different, but I enjoy it because I feel like it’s the level I want to play at and that’s the standard I hold myself to,” said Hurtado.”Whenever I train, I train at a high intensity. When I go out there now with the Whitecaps, everybody’s at that high level, so it’s second nature for me. They hold me to such a high standard that it makes me better and grow as a player.”

Hurtado returned home last Saturday to take on the Portland Timbers. The memories flooded back to Hurtado as he gazed around Jeld-Wen and marinated in the frenzy of the Timbers’ army. In front of countless family and high school friends who had supported and nurtured him in the Beaverton community, Hurtado played 30 minutes, getting a couple of touches and strong runs through the Timber defense.

“When I went on the field and started warming up I was like ‘Ah, just like old times’,” said Hurtado. “It was amazing. I’m really grateful. I know there are a lot of other things I could be doing right now, but this is the one thing I love, and I’m just real fortunate to go out and do it every single day. I just have my friends and family to thank for their support. I worked really hard and put a lot into it, but without them, I wouldn’t be here.”

In the next five years or so Hurtado said he wants to take his talents overseas to Europe, where the competition is vigorous and the lifestyle is lavish. He’s going to ground himself in Vancouver and acclimate himself to the pro environment first. Eventually Hurtado wants to compete against the world’s elite.

“I want to have the right habits like waking up on time, having the right diet, training with teammates,” said Hurtado. “I have to get used to playing with players that are at this level, and then once I get that settled, I want to go over to Europe. I feel like I’ll be able to.”

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