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Danny Cruz of D.C. United strengthens bonds with his father, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan

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As he spoke with wounded soldiers last week, his eyes tearing when told of roadside bombs and lost friends, D.C. United’s Danny Cruz thought of his father.

Al Cruz, Army sergeant first class, is stateside these days, preparing for reassignment to Illinois from Arizona. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan totaling more than 40 months since 2003 but was never injured.

“When I was listening to them tell their stories, I was thinking, ‘My dad was doing that,’ ” Danny, 22, said the day after a team-sponsored visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. “He was gone so long, it’s remarkable he’s okay.”

With combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the elder Cruz, 45, doesn’t think he’ll go back. He told Danny he was proud he visited Walter Reed, saying, “You saw the war that most people don’t see.”

The visit deepened Danny’s appreciation for sacrifice in the name of country and helped him further reconcile his feelings about his father, whose absence through much of his childhood fueled deep-seated resentment.

“I’d never see him. He was never around. You want your father around,” Danny said during a 30-minute interview at RFK Stadium. “As I have gotten older, I understand. I’ve grown to be very proud of him.”

Likewise, Al Cruz takes pride in his son, a rambunctious right wing who spent three years with the Houston Dynamo before United acquired him in January for financial considerations.

Slated for a reserve role upon his arrival, Cruz has started six of the past seven matches and brought unbridled energy to the flank. He is likely to remain in the lineup Wednesday night when United, riding a seven-game unbeaten streak and the second position in the MLS’s Eastern Conference, visits the Western-leading San Jose Earthquakes.

“He plays every play as if it’s his last,” said Coach Ben Olsen, who, as a player, was the same way. “I wouldn’t call him the most skillful guy or the most attractive soccer player. He’s a guy who usually ends up on the field because you need that type of passion and commitment out there.”

Cruz’s playing style is an extension of his personality. “He’s passionate,” said rookie midfielder Nick DeLeon, Cruz’s boyhood friend from Arizona and college teammate at UNLV in 2008.

Alone time

To understand Cruz’s blue-collar ethos, one must appreciate his background. He was born in Petersburg, Va., the same year (1990) his father was sent to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield, which later became Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait.

The family moved to Sonoma County in Northern California and later Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, where Cruz embraced hockey and football. He played for an elite hockey club in the San Diego area — a 5½-hour drive with other families. On the football field, despite being just 5 feet 8, he was a running back and linebacker, and dreamed of a college career.

Cruz didn’t take up soccer until age 13, seven years after most future pros begin playing. Soccer was “only to keep fit during football offseason — that’s all it was supposed to be,” he said.

It turned into much more. Speed compensated for a lack of technique and experience. He scored a state-record 70 goals in three seasons for Ironwood High School and won a state title.

Through club soccer and the Olympic Development Program, Cruz caught the attention of the national team program. Four years after his first competitive match, he was chosen for the U.S. squad at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup in South Korea. Two years later, he played in the U-20 World Cup in Egypt.

At home, life wasn’t as settled. With his father away, his mother struggled to make ends meet. One summer, he said, he sold water heaters at Sears and passed the paychecks to his mother, who was also raising Danny’s younger brother and sister. Another summer, he would leave the house at 4 a.m. to dig trenches for electrical work on swimming pool projects. Some money went to his family, some he kept.

“I was always worried because he didn’t have that male figure in his life,” said Cruz’s mother, Janet. “To watch a boy go through that, it’s painful. The coaches were in his life. I was lucky. If he hadn’t had them, I don’t know where he would’ve ended up.”

“Military service is difficult on families,” said Al Cruz, who has been separated from Janet since 2008. “There’s always a strain. Danny had to do a lot on his own through a challenging environment.”

Said Danny: “My getaway was with sports, getting away from everything. No matter what field I stepped on, I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

Family first

Cruz earned a scholarship to UNLV and played two seasons for the Rebels before turning pro. Houston selected him in the third round of the 2009 draft. He made 45 regular season appearances (27 starts) in 2010 and ’11 combined, and started four playoff matches last year, including the MLS Cup loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Although his mother has remarried, money remains tight. When she asks, Danny provides. He is also helping his brother, who works two jobs in Houston. (His base salary last season was $75,000; the players’ union hasn’t released this year’s figures yet.)

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said, “but my family has gotten me where I am.”

With her second husband, an Englishman who hasn’t qualified for a work visa, Janet has 2½-year-old twin boys, Benjamin and Hunter.

“We’ll watch the games on TV and I’ll ask them, ‘Where’s Danny?’ ” Janet said. “They point to Number 2 on the field and say, ‘Soccer star!’ ”

Her son’s success has left a lasting impression.

“We don’t come from much,” she said. “There are times I watch him on TV and think to myself, ‘Wow, that’s my kid, how did that happen?’ Then I remember: He made it happen. His drive and his heart.”

A tattoo on his chest reads: “Head up. Work hard. Don’t ever lose that drive because that drive and that desire to succeed is what got you where you are today.”

Cruz’s reconciliation with his father continues. Al Cruz is planning to drive to Washington from Arizona with Danny’s sister, a freshman in high school, in June. They’ll attend a United game or two and spend quality time in the city.

“I know it wasn’t his fault being away,” Danny said of his father’s military duty. “It was part of his life. My dad fought for this country. I’m proud he’s my father.”

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