September 6, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Love. Sacrifice. Loyalty. The three tattoos on Ronaldo Pineda’s left forearm catch the sun.
Taking off one of his cleats, the 5-foot-11 sophomore midfielder who runs opponents ragged hops toward the bleachers with a bandage over his toe.
Bloody blisters. No biggie.
“This is heaven,” said Pineda, pointing to Cal State Fullerton’s practice field.
Two days earlier, the pre-season All-Big West Conference selection had five shots against No. 16 UCLA, though the two-time defending Big-West champion Titans (1-3) fell, 1-0, in overtime.
“He’s relentless,” Titan coach George Kuntz said. “He has that intangible bite that you look for, that toughness.”
There is not a play Pineda will neglect or a teammate he won’t protect, as he learned love, sacrifice and loyalty from his mother — the inspiration behind the tattoos.
Maria Sosa worked two jobs as a single mother to provide for Pineda and his two older brothers in Santa Ana. Pineda didn’t see his mother some days because she’d leave early in the morning and return late at night, walking everywhere without a car.
Pineda’s oldest brother, Adan, took on more responsibility as a middle-schooler, pouring cereal and milk for his siblings before walking them to their elementary schools.
One day, Pineda’s cousin, Amirgy Pineda, took him to the park to kick a soccer ball around. Amirgy’s father, Rolando, treated Pineda as one of his own kids, making sure he had clothes, socks, shin guards, snacks, water, and would drive him to practices and trainings.
Joining Amirgy on the Fullerton Rangers at 8, Pineda was grateful. But sometimes he felt ashamed, showing up to school with ripped jeans. He’d pretend he already ate when friends offered food, not wanting people to think he didn’t have any.
“Back then I was embarrassed, but I was like, ‘Why am I embarrassed? I can’t front with people—I’m not rich.’ So I embraced it,” Pineda said. “I was so worried about other people when all my mom wanted me to be was happy and to succeed.”
“I grew up realizing I didn’t have much, but what I have is enough to prove that what my mom did wasn’t in vain,” Pineda said. “It was for the best of us, for us to succeed. She sacrificed so much … repaying her is to show her I could be someone in life.”
Pineda helped the Rangers to two national championships. Former Rangers director of coaching and player development Jimmy Obleda, another father figure to Pineda, taught work ethic to his players (most stayed for a decade). They sold chocolates to pay for tournament fees. They had to earn their spot every practice.
Once, Obleda kicked Pineda off the team for missing a game (he stayed home so he could watch Real Madrid play). Pineda soon apologized and didn’t take his spot for granted again.
“The environment that I created on that team was, ‘It’s too easy to quit, too easy to be average in this world, too easy to be mediocre,” said Obleda, now the men’s head coach at Santiago Canyon College and also the director of coaching and player development at Boca Juniors OC. “You have to strive to be excellent in everything you do. You have to sacrifice, and Ronaldo really took that to heart.”
Starring for Century High School in Santa Ana, he dreamed of playing pro. But shortly after committing to Sacramento State, he dealt with the deaths of two of his mother’s close family members.
Pineda had never seen his mother cry before. She was the warrior that seemed indestructible; it broke him to see that image of her split.
He asked Sacramento State for a release so he could play for a school closer to his mother. A year of eligibility was at stake, which could potentially threaten his chances of earning a scholarship for just three years at another school.
Meanwhile he worked back-breaking 10-hour shifts, sometimes waking up at 4.a.m., at a warehouse, checking, lifting and shipping merchandise.
“Do you want to be doing this for the rest of your life, working 9 dollars an hour? This better be the only time I do this because I want to set my goals high,” Pineda said to himself. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to survive… I want to build my family, get them out of poverty.”
Pineda had been checking his phone during work awaiting the release. His boss threatened to fire him the next time he was on his phone.
Days later, a call came. Pineda answered. “My future is more important,” Pineda said. “I walked out of the warehouse.”
Granted the release, Pineda reached out to Cal State Fullerton, following his best friend and former Rangers teammate Carlos Troncoso, now a sophomore defender for the Titans.
Waiting a year before enrolling in 2015, he trained for soccer and worked part-time in construction, doing demolition jobs like ripping out carpets and breaking down walls.
Starting 11 of 20 games as a rookie in 2015, he was named to the Big West Honorable Mention and All-Freshman teams, helping Fullerton claim its second consecutive Big West title and NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.
Taking a team-leading 38 shots while adding two goals and one assist, Pineda never seemed to run out of gas, as his explosiveness made it difficult for defenders to keep up.
His creativity on the field prompted Kuntz to call him: “artistic.”
He plays with his heart on his sleeve. He also can’t stomach losing.
“He would go the whole day without saying a word,” said Amirgy, who now plays for Santiago Canyon College. “You know when he’s upset because he’s a loud guy; the funny one, always cracking jokes, singing, dancing… it was the end of the world for him.”
Pineda, who is off to a fast start this season in leading the Titans with 15 shots with seven on target, having scored a goal against Vermont on Aug. 26, has pro potential, Kuntz said.
“If you go to a pro practice, and you watch the pro players touch the ball and their movements, I would say he’s better than most pros with his touch, with his runs,” Kuntz said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I think when he puts it all together, it’s going to be scary.”
Growing up, Pineda’s mother couldn’t attend many games due to her work. The times she did, Pineda’s team lost. She’d joke that he got nervous playing in front of her.
Pineda laughs, as a bright smile flashes across his face as he remembers her watching him help the Titans win the Big West crown last season. He fantasizes what it would be like if he helped the team win an NCAA championship.
“I want it all,” he said. “You have to be grateful for what you have but you always have to want more.”