Follow the leader

Like most defensive players, Joe Valencia has compiled modest numbers in his three-plus years at USF: four assists and a single goal.

Valencia’s contribution to the Bulls, however, is measured in more intangible ways, like leadership ability and passion for the game.

“His biggest value is his leadership,” said USF assistant coach Jim Felix. “He’s a warrior. He comes and he plays every day in training and in games. And that rubs off on the players, for sure.

Probably one of our more intelligent players as well.”Teammates and coaches alike echo Felix’s sentiments regarding the senior defender and co-captain.

“He’s a true team player, and he’s talented. He always comes to play,” said coach John Hackworth. “You never have to ask him twice to do something. And he does the little things, the dirty things.”

Though high-scoring forwards like Jason Cudjoe have garnered most of the attention for the Bulls (13-4, 6-2 in Conference USA) this season, Valencia’s work ethic and commitment to the team have not gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“He is a very dedicated and hard-working person … he’s definitely a good person and a quality soccer player,” Cudjoe said. Valencia, 22, credits his oldest brother Gus, a former soccer player at Coastal Carolina, with instilling in him the work ethic he has carried throughout his playing career.

“He had the greatest work ethic,” Valencia said. “He’d wake up early and train, I mean, 6:00, 5:30 in the morning. Before every day of school in high school he’d go run … that’s who always motivates me, and to this day still talks to me when I’m in tough times.”

After he was turned on to the sport at age 6, Valencia took an added interest in soccer when he watched the best players in the globe play in the World Cup.

“I always had a ball at my feet when I was a younger kid, so I just grew up with it,” Valencia said. “Then in 1986 I saw the World Cup, and that’s where it really got me going – when I saw the first World Cup game, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable. I’d love to play at a high level.'”

Valencia worked toward his goal with the tutelage of high school coach Steve Wolf, and he eventually won a spot on the Olympic Development Program team at the Under-15 level, playing with future USF teammates Cudjoe, Jeff Thwaites, Jonathan Alva-Cavero, Paul Scrivens and Wes Elias in Venezuela. That trip was an eye-opener for the young attacking midfielder.

“The culture was totally different. Here, we get spoiled, we get food everywhere. Over there … we were drinking water with ants in it, and stuff like that. It was unbelievable,” Valencia said.

Later in his playing career at Largo High School, Valencia was named Pinellas County Player of the Year – a distinction earlier won by his brother Gus – and made an impression on Hackworth, then an assistant at Wake Forest.

“I remember watching him in the Hillsborough/Pinellas County All-Star Game, and I believe he scored a hat trick, a couple of phenomenal goals,” Hackworth said.

As an 18-year-old, Valencia traveled to Germany to play with the amateur squad of then-Division 2 team Energie Cottbus, now in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga.

“There’s nothing you can compare to that. That was just a great experience. I might go back, maybe some time, try with the amateurs and see if I can work my way up,” Valencia said. Though tempted to stay, Valencia decided to return home to Largo and enrolled at USF in 1998 so as to stay close to his family. He said he might try out again with Energie Cottbus once he is finished with school.

“It’s tough now – (I’m an) older player, they’re looking for a younger player,” Valencia said. “They wanted me when I was young, so we’ll see.”

As a freshman, Valencia and company won the C-USA Tournament at home, but all was not roses.

“We were not really looked upon to do anything,” Valencia said. “We were kinda walked all over by the older players, and we weren’t respected like the young guys are now.”

With that experience in mind, Valencia and the other seniors such as Cudjoe have tried to respect the underclassmen. According to freshman defender Jared Vock, Valencia’s efforts have worked.

“When I came in here, I was thinking that the older players were going to give me stuff,” Vock said. “But no … he’s helping everybody out, helps all the young guys out – school, everything … if you’ve got problems with the coach, you can talk to him and he’ll help us out.”

Though Valencia’s work ethic has not changed much, his role as a player has. In high school he was a prolific attacker, in his first three years at USF he played in the midfield, and now he mans the left back position.

“So he was an attacking midfielder coming out of high school, now I’m playing him as a left back. That just shows you that he’s pretty versatile,” Hackworth said. “I’ve literally played him everywhere but goal in four years.”

Senior co-captain Matt Cavenaugh said the marked improvement in the Bulls’ defense this year (six shutouts) compared to last year (no shutouts) is due in no small part to Valencia.

“I personally like him as a defender because you can rely on him to mark a guy out of a game, stay solid, keep the ball out of the net,” Cavenaugh said. “If you notice, last year we gave up a lot more goals than we did this year. He definitely is a part of that.”Since his freshman year, Valencia and the Bulls have not had a repeat of that postseason success. A low point came last year when the Bulls failed to qualify for the C-USA Tournament, so Valencia thought it was time to act.

“He got them (his teammates) together without me being there and said, ‘All right, what are our goals? What are we going to accomplish?'” said Hackworth. “And the players came up with a bunch of stuff … that’s what a leader is all about.”

Hackworth attributed last year’s lack of success mostly to a lack of passion among the team members, a problem that became worse when Valencia missed a few matches with a foot injury.

“Passion is a part of the team that you can’t teach,” said assistant coach Mike Duncan. “It’s a thing that basically you’re brought up with – the passion to play, the passion to succeed. You either have it, or you don’t. And last year, the passion on our team was not there, whereas this year, it’s a whole different story.”

In contrast to last year’s desperate, and ultimately futile fight to make the six-team field for the C-USA Tourney, this season the Bulls are in a comfortable third place in the conference standings and in good position for next week’s on their home field.

The Bulls have two more C-USA matches remaining, beginning with Marquette tonight at 7 at the USF Soccer Stadium. Expect to see No. 14 lining up at left back for USF.

“He’s not a natural left back, but he’s on the field because that’s where he’s contributing, and that’s where he’s helping us right now,” said Duncan. “And he’s done a great job there all year for us.”

Besides professional soccer, Valencia, a business major, has his sights set on a leadership position in a company.

“I like to be a leader. I like to run my show,” Valencia said. “I’d like to get in a company that I’m going to have a lot to do with, if anything.”

n Khari Williams covers men’s soccer and can be reached at