Through creative arrangements with his parents, school administrators and teachers, Hernandez, 18, was granted permission to complete the school year abroad while pursuing his soccer dreams.
“The first thing my parents ask me on the phone, before we talk about soccer or anything else, is about homework,” he said from San Salvador this week. “They want to make sure I finish everything. It’s the most important thing right now.”
Hernandez’s mother, Elena, arranged for him to work with a calculus tutor from the American School in San Salvador three days a week. For his ceramics project, he travels 30 miles to the town of Ilobasco, an artists’ haven renowned for clay and pottery works. He will present his final work to class via Skype video.
While his mostly older teammates socialize in dorms and hotels, Hernandez studies, polishes papers and e-mails with teachers. Most of his deadlines are next week.
“We saw it as an exciting opportunity, but we recognized the challenge,” said Aaron Plantenberg, Burke’s dean of students and a Spanish teacher. “Everyone agreed his ability to graduate on time could not be put at risk. We put faith in him that he could get it all done.”
Hernandez was born in Rockville and lives with his family in Lanham. His father, Leonel, is a Burke graduate and owner of a landscaping business. His mother is a housekeeper. A younger sister also attends Burke, a 45-year-old school with 300 students between the sixth and 12th grades.
Romy (short for Romilio) earned All-Met honorable mention honors as a junior but had to sit out last fall because he competes for Baltimore Bays Chelsea, an elite club in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. (The USSDA bars players from playing high school soccer.)
He is headed to NCAA titan Louisville in the fall.
Hernandez, a central midfielder, said he always wanted to play for the United States on the international level and, in recent years, reported to U.S. under-15 and under-18 camps. He also attended a Salvadoran camp in January after a family friend made the country’s soccer federation aware of him and his eligibility through family roots.
This year, however, the U.S. program passed him over.
“He got a little upset when he wasn’t invited,” said his father, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1985. “The U.S. coaches told him to wait. We waited and nothing came.”
Because of his age and experience, though, Hernandez would have been a long shot for the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster. Almost all of the players in the U.S. pool have professional or high-level college experience.
School obligations prevented him from joining El Salvador for the qualifiers in Mexico and being part of the first Salvadoran squad to earn a U-20 World Cup berth. The United States, Mexico and Cuba also qualified for the 24-team tournament, which will begin June 21.
Despite his current Salvadoran ties, Hernandez could someday play for the United States. Players with dual citizenship are allowed to petition FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to change their national allegiance once. But unless the U.S. Soccer Federation comes calling in the future, Hernandez is committed to El Salvador, a country he had visited with family just three times before this year.
Despite being new to the team and younger than most teammates, Hernandez fit in right away — he is bilingual — and seems almost certain to make the U-20 World Cup roster. The Salvadorans will play a friendly in Chile next week and continue workouts at home before traveling to the United States for training camp.
Barring a roster change, Hernandez will suit up in a friendly against Honduras on June 1 at the University of Maryland. The next day, he will don a cap and gown for Burke’s graduation ceremonies at Temple Sinai on Military Avenue NW.
“It was difficult to get everyone together, but we’re making it happen,” he said of the school-and-soccer plan. “It’s on me now to get the work done.”