Jonathan Mendoza has a smile on his face. That fact is not newsworthy because the Stetson University senior always has a smile on his face.
Anyone who spends more than a couple of minutes around Mendoza comes away with a smile on their face as well. He has that kind of personality, and it is infectious.
It was that personality, more than anything, that first attracted Stetson men’s soccer coach T. Logan Fleck to Mendoza back in 2009. It is also that personality that has led the Hatters’ soccer program for the last three years and has guided him to the verge of a professional career in the sport he loves.
“He is a player that just seems to always have fun, and he seems to have more fun when there is more pressure,” Fleck said. “When I saw that in him, it was the first thing that attracted me to him as a player. It was an added bonus for us that all you have to do is sit next to him for 12 seconds and he will make you smile.”
Mendoza, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, but raised in Altamonte Springs, Florida, said that having a positive attitude has always been important to him, and it has also helped him achieve many of the goals he set for himself.
“You are never going to see me mad,” Mendoza said. “You will always see a smile on my face when I am on the field. I like to joke around. I am not a person who likes to be mad. I want to laugh and smile and make everyone happy. That is something you need because when everyone around you is happy, then they want to stay with you. They want to have the same attitude that you have, so it is really important.”
His smile was especially broad in mid-January when he was recognized by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America as a third team All-American. He is the first Stetson player to be honored as an All-American in soccer.
Still, even though he was proud of the honor, as well as the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year award he picked up, Mendoza wants more. He wants to lead his team back to the NCAA Tournament. He wants to be A-Sun Player of the Year again, and he wants to be a first team All-American.
Those goals, according to Fleck, are well within reach this fall, along with something else.
“We talked about these dreams back when he was being recruited,” Fleck said. “It started as a possibility, turned into a probability and now, it is within reach. The idea now is to lead. He is going to have a big target on his back, probably bigger than he is, but that doesn’t matter.
“I want him to lead this team further than any other Stetson team has gone into the NCAAs. It is one thing to be a leader in a category, like goal scoring, but it is another thing to be a leader of a team. This is what he has been training for and working towards.”
But there is also another goal out there for Mendoza, one he has had since he was a small child, watching soccer games on television with his father and older brother.
“Everything that I am doing here is a preparation,” Mendoza said. “It doesn’t matter where I go, I just want to have that feeling that I am playing pro and have reached the goal I have had since I was little. I used to watch soccer games on TV and tell my parents that I want to play on TV. I don’t care where I go, I just want to play.”
Reaching the ranks of professional soccer has been done before by Stetson players. Former Hatter Miguel Rodrigues has played for the last two years in his home country, South Africa, but signed a contract in December with Club Martimo Funchal in Portugal. Fredrik Brustad went on from Stetson to play for Stabaek in his native Norway.
Perhaps the most well-known former Hatter playing professionally is Eugene Starikov. He came to Stetson from Palm Harbor, Fla., but was born in the Ukraine.
“He is an outstanding player,” Fleck said. “I think the big boys didn’t think he was big enough, but the kid had the first bicycle kick I have seen here at Stetson, and the YouTube video of that has more than 10,000 hits. He is an unbelievable kid, very bright. He had to make a tough decision when the opportunity to play professional came along, and I didn’t stop him.”
He has spent time playing in the Russian Premier League, but he has also spent time in camp with the U.S. National Team.
Mendoza has a chance to join those three as former Hatters in the pro ranks. Fleck said his senior is very similar in make-up to a player he coached at South Florida, Jeff Cunningham.
“Having coached for 26 years, and having coached the leading goal scorer of all-time in MLS, Johnny is cut from the same cloth as far as passion,” Fleck said. “It is not just commitment. There are a lot of kids who make All-America who have the commitment. When it comes to making it as a pro, you have to have that passion.”
But Mendoza said his focus is on the Stetson program and completing his degree. Pro soccer will come in due time.
“I have grown as a player since coming to Stetson,” Mendoza said. “I am around better people that have the same qualities that I have. When I first got here it was a little hard for me, but it has been great. I am glad I picked Stetson and got to play here. It is a big honor for me to play for this team and to represent this school.
“I am focused on school and this team. I think everything is a preparation to get to that level. I don’t want to work out just to become a professional. I want to work out to get ready to play for Stetson right now, because I don’t want to take anything for granted.”
Fleck said he will have mixed emotions when the 2012 season comes to an end and he no longer will be able to coach Johnny Mendoza.
“The word to describe Johnny is extraordinary and, when you have an extraordinary player you want to see him reach the full potential of that extraordinary ability,” Fleck said. “That is my challenge to him. It is going to be a sad day for me when he graduates.
“This next seven months for him will lead to the possibility of him being drafted in the first round to the MLS. That is a lot of pressure to put on someone, and I am aware of that, but I am making that challenge to him. I think he will accept it.”
Most likely, he’ll accept the challenge, and have a smile on his face.