“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.
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.