As he stood for his first international appearance in red, white and blue, expectations for forward Christian Ramirez were high.
“I need a goal, big man,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said as he patted Ramirez on the back on his way to the sideline referee.
“Okay,” Ramirez said, nodding in response. “Alright.”
Externally, he played it cool for his coach and team as he jogged onto the field for the first time in a United States kit. Internally, he could hardly keep his excitement under control.
“The whole game I was just trying to envision what it would feel like going in, let alone score,” Ramirez said. “I sort of took a moment to myself when I was standing at midfield and I closed my eyes for second. If somebody was able to check my heart rate at that point, it would have been through the roof.”
Only minutes later, Ramirez dodged into the Panama box as midfielder Jonathan Lewis cut to the outside. Lewis tapped the ball through the box, past the hands of the diving keeper, and Ramirez was there to meet it, smacking a skipping shot into the back of the net to give the U.S. a 3-0 lead.
Ramirez barely stopped to watch the ball hit the net, turning immediately and putting a hand to his ear. It was a signal to anyone who had criticized him before — those who said he couldn’t play at the national level, or the professional level, voices and doubts that had followed him for his entire career.
For Ramirez, no part of his career had ever been a given. He wasn’t selected in the MLS Draft and had to fight his way out of the second-tier United Soccer League. Now, with a solid position on the LAFC roster and a national cap and goal under his belt, the 27-year-old finally feels that he’s coming into his moment, and he won’t take a second for granted.
“Honestly, it’s awesome to be in this conversation,” Ramirez said. “You want to do well for your club to be able to keep yourself in this conversation and fulfill a role that the coaching staff believes you can fill. To be honest, [I’ll play] anywhere. I’m willing to be a super sub. Whatever they need of me at the time, I’m there.”
LET'S GO! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/aKMjtRHxUd
— USMNT (@ussoccer_mnt) January 28, 2019
The goal came in a typical style for Ramirez — a matter of being in the right place at the right time. He joked after the game that he often cleans up similar goals in training, positioning himself well in the box to collect crosses and deflected shots that fly awry. Longtime U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley had described this as Ramirez’ signature style — “If that’s not a Christian Ramirez goal, I don’t know what is,” he once told Ramirez after he scored similarly in a training practice.
So when Ramirez found himself centered in the box, with the goalkeeper’s back to him and a teammate dancing with the ball on the left flank, he felt confident that he could finish when the cross came his way.
“What’s funny is that somebody asked me, ‘What would you have wanted your first goal to look like for the national team?’ And I told them, ‘Just how it happened.’” Ramirez said. “It’s sort of a reputation that I’m slowly getting where I’m just in the right place at the right time.”
For Ramirez, the moment was especially memorable because of the contingency of his personal fans in the stands — his wife, daughter, parents and especially his aunt, who flew from Colombia to see him play for the first time in his career. Heading into the game, Ramirez had no idea if he would get the call to play, especially after riding the bench during his first call-up last year.
“I said, ‘Hopefully, you guys get to see me for the first time with this jersey on, no matter how long,'” Ramirez said. “And once that was clear, it really made it easy for me to refocus. I didn’t have that pressure anymore of trying to get on the roster. Now I could just get my mind around it that anything that was needed of me in this game, I was willing to do. If that’s something that is asked of me, I am going to do it willingly because you always want to be a part of representing your country.”