Pereira chases American soccer dream at Rutgers
The Rutgers men’s soccer team corralled itself a new journeyman this season, when it brought goalkeeper Rafael Pereira up to New Jersey and Division I soccer with the Scarlet Knights.
Pereira, a junior from Lisbon, Portugal, started playing soccer when he was just 7 years old. He was in need of an extra afterschool activity to keep him occupied and picked up the sport.
Although Pereira started out as a regular skill player, a year into his soccer career he saw a switch to the goalkeeper position after his team needed a new one during finishing drills.
“I remember telling myself, 'Well, why not give it a try,' because I had actually played goalie a few times with my classmates in school,” Pereira said. “The coaches and other players were really impressed at the academy, so from then I’ve been in the goal.”
Fast forward through his formative years in Portugal, Pereira began to take soccer seriously in his junior year of high school at Escola Secundaria de Vergilio Ferreira, when he was 17 years old.
Pereira explained that the system in Portugal differs from the one in the United States. While in the United States colleges have sports teams as well as academics, Portugal only offers either college or professional soccer clubs, but not both.
The mindset of Pereira was that although he wanted to pursue his dream of being a professional soccer player, he also wanted to make sure he got a college degree.
“I knew how the American system (worked) when it came to college soccer and academics working together, so I worked with (recruiting services) to get my highlight reels out there on a networking page,” he said.
That was when a coach from Marshalltown Community College in Iowa found Pereira’s videos during the second semester of his senior year, making it a close finish to graduation. Pereira had nearly given up his dream of playing college soccer in America but jumped at the opportunity.
The Marshalltown coach explained to Pereira that he could go there for two years and work on his skills and grades before leaving for a Division I or II school afterward. After a stellar two years at Marshalltown, Pereira did just that.
Pereira racked up many accolades over his two years at Marshalltown, including being a two-time NJCAA All-American, a two-time first team All-Region XI and a seven-time ICCAC player of the week. Pereira’s record over the two years was 33-5-3, with 20 shutouts and a 0.56-career goals against average.
“When (Rutgers head) coach (Dan) Donigan and the rest of the coaching staff started recruiting me, they told me that they saw a lot of potential in me and that their previous starting goalie was just drafted, so they were looking for (a) new one,” Pereira said. “But, nothing was guaranteed and I would have to fight for it.”
Pereira had to battle for the starting goalie position over this past offseason, ultimately beating out three other goalkeepers on the team, who are all New Jersey natives.
The first few games were definitely an adjustment period for Pereira, where Rutgers lost three of its first four games, one of which was just an exhibition game, while the other two were against top-five nationwide teams. Adapting from a junior community college to Division I level talent is no easy task for anyone.
“As a team, we have the toughest schedule in the nation, but we try to battle with our new and young guys. We can’t forget that,” Pereira said.
As the season has progressed, Pereira seems to have adjusted well and has gotten more comfortable with his position. Although the Knights are just 2-8-1 this season, a lot more can be said about the performance of the offensive side of the ball for Rutgers.
Over the course of the first 11 games, Pereira has brought in 59 saves with a 2.66-goals allowed per game average. The Knights have allowed 30 goals so far this season, while only scoring 12 themselves, but Pereira’s two shutouts remain bright spots on the tough season.
“We’ve got to be patient. We know this season isn’t going the way we expected, but we’ve got to continue working hard and win the rest of our games,” Pereira said.
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