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After leaving Venezuela and UCLA, men's soccer forward Santiago Herrera thriving at UNC

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Fifth year forward Santiago Herrera (9) fends off the Wake Forest's junior midfielder Takuma Suzuki (12) and junior defender Nico Benalcazar (23) in the Oct. 8 game against Wake Forest. UNC lost 2-1.

In 2017, North Carolina forward Santiago Herrera came to a pivotal decision. In a few months he would be moving across the world and departing an unstable Venezuela to pursue soccer professionally — his only opportunity to leave his home country and continue the sport he loves.

Herrera has been playing soccer since he was six years old, competing for two club teams in his hometown of Barquisimeto. The first was called Centro Italo Venezolano, which he was a member of until he was 14 years old. He then transferred to Lara F.C., a professional football club based in Barquisimeto. It was there when Herrera began to take soccer more seriously.

The fields he played on in Venezuela, however, did not compare to the ones he plays on now on the UNC men's soccer team.

The quality of the fields was poorer and there was an extreme lack of resources, such as the amount of balls and other materials, Herrera said.

“It was definitely a tougher environment and the coaching staff was limited,” he said. 

Venezuela was experiencing political and social turmoil, which prompted Herrera’s family to encourage him to take soccer more seriously.

“Venezuela was a dangerous, hectic environment, so I knew it would be best for me to leave,” Herrera said. “Soccer is special to me because I was good at it and because during that time, it shifted my mind from what was going on around me.”

‘Proud of myself’

At the age of 16, Herrera said he began learning more about college and opportunities to leave the country. The UCLA men’s soccer team recruited him from Venezuela, and just one year later, he left his entire family behind to play soccer in the United States.

One challenge Herrera had to deal with was the language barrier. He did not speak English prior to his arrival in the U.S., which only added to the pressure of being in a new environment. 

“I took English classes before coming to UCLA and the first semester I really struggled, but I found a way,” Herrera said. “I’m still learning English, but I am in a much better spot now.” 

He spent his first two seasons at UCLA, but eventually left because he was not happy with the team's performance.

“The team was not doing very well and that made my experience less enjoyable,” Herrera said.

He knew that he had to look elsewhere to find a new team. Before he originally committed to UCLA, he had been in contact with UNC head coach Carlos Somoano. Herrera reestablished contact hoping for a chance to join the Tar Heels, one that he is now grateful for.

Somoano said while transitioning to the University is not easy for anyone, Herrera “got used to it and made the best of his situation.”  

Since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2019, Herrera has shown his ability to be an all-around player. While he did not receive much playing time his junior season — starting in only one game — he has since started in all of UNC’s games and achieved great success. 

“I think one of the most special moments was making it to the Final Four last year,” Herrera said. “Seeing how the team grew throughout COVID and seeing everyone work together was amazing.” 

The team made it to the Final Four by beating in-state rival Wake Forest, 2-1 — a game where Herrera scored the winning goal, which has been a defining moment in his career. This season, Herrera stepped into a larger role, as he was selected to be the team’s co-captain.

“I have a reason to be proud of myself," he said. "I take a lot of pride in leading us to more wins."

‘Family is very important’

Despite his accomplishments, Herrera has struggled deeply with missing his family. Since he left Venezuela, Herrera has only been able to see his family members a few times. 

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He had plans last year to visit his family, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, he was unable to do so.

“Family is very important to me, so it has been hard doing all of this traveling and not being able to see them often, and then the pandemic made me miss them even more,” Herrera said.

But Herrera has developed meaningful relationships with his teammates. His closest friends are midfielder Milo Garvanian and goalkeeper Alec Smir, both of whom he described as family.

“We’ve gotten really close this year and since he got here, we hang out basically every day,” Garvanian said. “We golf together, go fishing together. He’s definitely the person I hang out with the most."

Garvanian said their chemistry off the field only makes playing together more natural.

‘Make everybody proud’

At UNC, Herrera dedicates four hours a day to his sport. Practice lasts from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. each day and recovery is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. During his free time, he continues to devote himself to soccer while also spending time with family and friends.

Herrera said Somoano's program has made him a different player than he was when he first arrived. But, he said, the program has also taught him a lot about himself.

“Coach Somoano is very demanding, but also very supportive,” Herrera said. “He taught me how to get out of my comfort zone. I am grateful for all of the teaching.”

Somoano had no shortage of words when describing Herrera’s work ethic.  

“Santi has a great personality and great spirit. His energy is infectious and he does not get caught in nonsense like many do in sports,” Somoano said. “He’s very mature, he has great speed of play, high intensity, versatility and can play different positions.”

Some aspirations Herrera has for this season are to continue winning games, get through the ACC and eventually make it to the conference finals. Herrera’s goals echo Somoano’s, who also hopes to build on the success the team achieved last season. 

“I want him to take advantage of the environment and finish up nicely as a student-athlete,” Somoano said.

Herrera is looking forward to seeing his parents for his upcoming game against Notre Dame on Friday, Oct. 29. Despite not visiting Venezuela in years, Herrera receives messages from fans back home congratulating him on his success.

And at UNC, Herrera continues to wear number nine — the jersey he wore with both club teams in Venezuela — with pride. After this final season, he hopes to have an opportunity to play overseas in Europe. 

“I play for my family and my country,” Herrera said. “I love inspiring people and touching people’s hearts. I want to make everybody proud.”  


@dthsports | |