By JOSE M. ROMERO
Two things David Estrada would like fans to know: He didn't come from nowhere to suddenly burst onto the Major League Soccer scene with his hat trick last Saturday, and he won't let three goals in a game go to his head.
"I'm not on top of the world," Estrada said. "I know it's only the first game of the season."
Estrada is the talk of MLS this week after the performance of a lifetime, three goals in Seattle's 3-1 win over Toronto FC at CenturyLink Field. The forward was in a zone, and saw all of his hard work over two seasons of sporadic playing time pay off in one night when he scored goals in the 17th, 51st and 63rd minutes of the match.
Estrada, a 2010 first-round SuperDraft pick of the Sounders, appeared in six combined MLS regular-season matches over his first two seasons in the league. He's also appeared in U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League matches but had never scored in league play, with the majority of his playing time coming in reserve games last year.
But 2012, at least the beginning of it, has Estrada starting up top for the Sounders. He scored in the Sounders' CCL quarterfinal first leg against Santos Laguna in Seattle, a precursor of good things to come.
"You look at others stories of players that kind of go through that. You look at Chris Wondolowski. He didn't play so much. He scored a few goals in the reserve league in his first couple of years in MLS, and I think Brian Ching as well," Estrada said. "Those guys perservered through that difficulty and sort of saw a few years to adjust to the speed of the game. I think at the end of (last) year I proved to myself that I can play in this league."
Conversations with Estrada about how he ascended to where he is end up pointing to the work he put in over the past two years. It's a work ethic he got from his parents, who picked lettuce in the fields of Central California. Estrada was born in Mexico but has lived in the U.S. since he was four months old, growing up in Salinas, Calif. as a fan of Cruz Azul of Mexico and playing in a character-building Sunday recreational league as a 14-year-old.
Estrada couldn't help but think about all of that as he spoke to reporters Saturday night, and the emotions of the moment nearly overcame him.
"People back home that I know were watching the game, my grandfather who means so much to me that I never met, that has such a big influence in playing soccer," Estrada said. "I played with my dad. I played with my brother and you know, just kind of remembering those days when I used to play with them. It was kind of like dedicated to them and my grandfather as well."
Armando Mora, Estrada's grandfather, helped build up soccer in the village where Estrada's family is from, Estación Queréndaro, near Morelia, Michoacan. Estrada's team in Salinas was also called Armando Mora.
Estrada stayed clear of the gangs and wrong crowd in Salinas through soccer. His skills got him scholarship offers to nearby San Jose State and Cal Poly, but Estrada wanted to play at the highest level in college and accepted an offer to walk on at UCLA. It took him his freshman season to earn a scholarship.
"My first quarter, I told my parents that I had financial aid, and that was a little lie that would come back to bite me in the butt," Estrada admitted. "I came to a week before I had to pay around $3500 to pay tuition or else I wouldn't be able to dress up for the game. When I told my parents that they were a little bit upset."
Motivated to get his tuition paid, Estrada, a history major who minored in Chicano studies, scored 12 goals as freshman and by the next quarter was a scholarship player. He still has a year of studies left to earn his degree but promises to finish his education.
"It's something I want to give my parents," Estrada said.
His strong work ethic on the field caught the eye of Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
"I liked him as a freshman. I thought he had an ability in the box and the ability that he has is that if you take your eye off him for even a second, he's in a different place because he works so hard," Schmid said. "But it was just when he first came to us it might have been nerves, or trying to do too much."
Many of those close to Estrada are huge fans of Mexican soccer. Estrada was, too, but also grew up with MLS. In elementary school he once wrote on a piece of paper that he wanted to one day be a pro soccer player and play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
He wound up in Seattle, where support for the game has been off the charts from Day 1 of the franchise.
"I can honestly say that I'm living my dream," Estrada said.
Estrada has been asked often if the trade of attacking players Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, two highly popular Sounders that were dealt to the Montreal Impact for forward Eddie Johnson before the season began, impacted his increased role and playing time.
"Before the trade, I was very confident in what I was doing on the field during preseason, that they (coaches) had already kind of seen a glimpse of what they wanted to see from me," Estrada said. "When that trade happened, very sad day, because they're good guys and we're like a family here… I didn't see it as an opportunity. I already had been doing well."
Estrada said his decision-making and better awareness of what's around him are the keys to his improvement.
"I'm a lot fitter. I think I'm a lot stronger. If anything, I don't run with my head cut off," Estrada said. "I run with a purpose, and I think that's been the difference."