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19-year-old Juan Pablo Torres brings versatility to New York City FC midfield

Juan Pablo Torres carried himself "like a little mini-professional" at 13 years old according to his club coach, Dave Smith. (Katie Cahalin, NYCFC)

It did not take long for Dave Smith to recognize the esteem of a 13-year old – Juan Pablo Torres — in his presence at the Georgia United Development Academy in 2012.

“From the very beginning, Juan carried himself like a little mini-professional,” Smith told Pro Soccer USA. “Very polished, the way he treated teammates, the way he treated coaching staff, the way he treated referees — just everything about him wasn’t a normal 13-year-old kid.”

Smith coached Torres for three seasons at the DA club, and on Saturday, the 5-foot-8 midfielder signed a multiyear deal with Major League Soccer’s New York City FC.

Torres spent the previous two seasons with Belgium top-tier side KSC Lokeren. He managed but two appearances for the senior team, both assignments coming in 2017. 

Lokeren recently obtained a pair of midfielders during the winter transfer window, making Torres begin to look elsewhere for an opportunity.

“My agent and I were talking about the future, especially with the World Cup coming up,” said Torres, who is expected to represent the United States at the U-20 event in Poland. “It would be in my best interest, and I needed to be in a place in a better environment to be well-prepared for the World Cup — whether that was going to be at a different club in Europe or in MLS. So, I chose NYCFC to get a chance to go home (to America).”

Torres is a native of Lilburn, Ga., about 30 miles outside of Atlanta.

“It’s nothing crazy like the big city,” Torres said of the hometown he shares with NYCFC teammate Sean Johnson. “The complete opposite, in fact.”

In Gwinnett County, Torres played for the Gwinnett Soccer Association (GSA), which once featured Walker Zimmerman, the former FC Dallas central defender now playing for LAFC.

But a move to Georgia United – a collaboration of four area clubs to secure a position with U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy – ensued for the teen. 

Tony Annan, the current academy director at Atlanta United and the head coach of last year’s MLS Homegrown game, was Georgia United’s technical director.

“I heard that I could play two seasons instead of one and wouldn’t have to play high school soccer, and it was going to be competitive,” Torres said. “I saw it as a professional step. I think highly of Georgia United. That’s when I became really serious about the game.”

In the process, Torres joined a trio of teammates who ultimately signed Homegrown contracts with defending MLS Cup Champion Atlanta United – Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin and Patrick Okonkwo.

“We were able to create environments to give Juan and these boys a chance to chase their dreams,” Smith said. “That team he was on, the training environment was very competitive and at a very high level. Juan embraced it and was the leader on all fronts with that group of kids.”

The competitive spirit necessary to compete at the highest levels was realized by Torres on a trial at German club Schalke.

“It was an experience to see the level of the kids there and see the intensity — that was the thing that shocked me the most,” Torres said. “They play with a lot of heart, and a lot of the kids there don’t have the same opportunities. Football is the only thing they can do to support their family. So, I had to really increase my level of intensity in my training back home in order to play at that level or else it wasn’t going to be enough.”

Eventually, the opportunity at Lokeren emerged after initially competing with the club’s U-19s. Torres was offered a contract with the first team and started his first match three months later, a 3-0 derby loss to Gent.

That was Nov. 19, 2017 – his last appearance in Belgium’s top tier.

“That was kind of the hardest part for me,” Torres said. “To make your debut in a match like that, you could imagine what would come after that game – people started writing about me. For whatever reason, the coach kind of pushed me aside.”

That created an opening for NYCFC after a bright summer when Torres scored four goals in seven matches for the U.S. U-20s, who earned a World Cup berth by winning the Concacaf championship.

Born to Colombian parents, Torres had the option to represent the South Americans or the United States. He never wavered in his decision.

“I’d been invited to some camps with Colombia, but it was always a no-brainer for me,” said Torres, who started his U.S. youth national team career with the U-14s. “My parents, of course, are from Colombia and I have that pride in me, but the country I feel prideful for and want to fight for is the U.S.”

On Monday, Torres joined his New York City teammates in Abu Dhabi for the start of preseason. Before departing, he provided a self-evaluation that highlighted a quality cherished by City head coach Dome Torrent – versatility in the midfield.

“I like to think I can play anywhere among the midfield three, whether defensively the (No.) 6 or higher up the pitch like the (No.) 10,” Torres said. “I’m very comfortable on the ball and I’ve had experience with a lot of the positions. I started as the 6 and got older and started playing with the national team and started playing the (No.) 8 role. [U.S. U-20 coach] Tab [Ramos] thought that suited me.”

Smith agreed with that assessment.

“I think the 8 is probably where I see his best role is,” Smith said. “He’s fantastic when he sees the game in front of him. He can do the work of the 8 and get box to box, and he can be creative. He’s going to be more of a player that gets on the ball and plays that killer pass that breaks the back line and gets his team in behind – those are the areas he thrives. He can score goals, too. He proved that recently with the U-20s.”

Smith, who is the current Executive Director of the NASA-Top Hat Soccer Club in Atlanta, also said playing under Torrent, a former Barcelona assistant, should work in Torres’ favor.

“Without question,” Smith said. “Juan, every time he walked up to practice, man he was rattling off whatever game was on TV that day, and he was specifically a big Barcelona fan. He loves that style. He loves possession, playing through the lines, he’s all about that. He couldn’t be in a better situation to give him the opportunities he’s worked so hard for.”

And Smith anticipates that Torres will eventually get called up by new U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter.

“I think Juan showed with the U-20s, by performing on the big stage, and I think it’s a springboard to the senior level,” Smith said. “I think Gregg is going to give a lot of players a lot of opportunities. I think Juan will get an opportunity at some point, and when that happens, he definitely has everything in his tool box to be able to play at that level – you can just see it.”

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