Mateo Pinilla returned to Houston Sports Park earlier this month as the latest local product to represent Houston Dynamo FC on the international stage. The 15-year-old looks to build on a memorable two-year stretch that saw him play up with the U-17 squad and train with the U-19 team in 2019. His confidence opened the door to an international stage after scouts from the U-15 U.S. Boys’ National Team took notice of the defender at a regional scouting event and invited him to the first U-15 Boys’ National Team training camp of 2020 in March.
"I loved the experience. I love meeting guys that I used to play against. It's a good level,” Pinilla said. “That was pretty exciting, because that was the first I made any type of national team camp.”
The center back would depart from camp early, and the U-15 U.S. Soccer program suspended activity in March as the pandemic forced a lockdown throughout the country. Pinilla returned to Houston and adjusted to the new environment at Houston Sports Park and a new competition format, MLS Next, following the suspension of the Development Academy by U.S. Soccer.
Change has been the norm with Pinilla, who left Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in 2019 to enroll in the online high school program offered by the Club. The online format allows players like Pinilla to report for international camps, train with the Dynamo First Team and prepare for the rigors of professional sports while pace with their classmates academically.
"The (Dynamo Academy technical staff) motivate me, they talk to me about how I can improve. They want me to get better and they know what can set me apart from the rest of the player pool,” Pinilla said. “I think that training up with the U-19 team and following that schedule has helped me get stronger, play quicker, play better. I think the way the Academy is helping players to play at a higher level is really helpful."
The defender joined the Dynamo Academy as a midfielder in 2014 and transitioned to the backline over the last two years. The 15-year-old credits Dynamo Academy director Paul Holocher and his coaches with preparing him for the international stage and creating a pathway to the professional ranks.
"With the arrival of coach Paul Holocher, the way we play has changed. I think with his arrival there has been more opportunities to train with the First Team,” the defender said. “That goal to play professional seems more realistic now."
Holocher lauds Pinilla’s adaptability and vision on the field, which make him a key player on the U-17 team under head coach Brian Reed.
“Mateo is an excellent young player who developed early as a midfielder. We have begun to develop him at the left center back position because of his comfort level on the ball and his ability to help our build-up play and enter the midfield,” Holocher said. “As he continues to develop physically and learns all the responsibilities of the center back position, he will become a top player. We are excited that he has been recognized for his play and will have this experience.”
Pinilla’s progress opened the door to his second national team camp invitation, this time with the Colombian U-17 National Team. The lifelong Tolima fan accepted the opportunity to train in Bogota from Dec. 14-Dec. 23. The training camp gave the Colombian coaching staff their first in-person look at Pinilla, who jumped on their radar following conversations with the Dynamo Academy staff and coaches from the San Antonio area.
“I was thrilled. I love that I get this opportunity. My parents are and it was always a dream to play for Colombia and the United States,” Pinilla said. “To have the opportunity to play for both is really great."
The defender and his parents reflected on the opportunity and Pinilla wants to explore what the international stage has to offer.
"They are really excited. At first, they were a bit hesitant, because they didn’t know if this would interfere with any of the U.S. camps,” Pinilla said. “This is not really a situation where I have to make a decision, I just want to get a feel for the coaches, the players, the style of play.”
Pinilla reported to Colombia during the Academy offseason and spent time with family in Bogota prior to his first training session on Dec. 14. The Dynamo Academy defender joined 22 other players in was one of three players who play abroad.
Camp offered Pinilla daily training sessions, a scrimmage with a local club and motivation to tackle the upcoming MLS Next season and earn another callup. Gatherings were limited due to the pandemic and Pinilla maximized his time in the recovery room to build relationships with his teammates.
Pinilla is now solely focused on the upcoming MLS Next season due to uncertainty in the youth international calendar. Colombia and other nations are adjusting their calendar following the decision from FIFA to postpone the U-20 and U-17 World Cups. This gives Pinilla an opportunity to work on the feedback he received from the technical staff over camp. He is also more prepared to navigate a camp in the middle of offseason, which presented its own challenges.
“The technical staff shared what they they ran me through what the next few months were going to be like. They told me what to work on," Pinilla said. “This experience kept me fit, in good shape and I was able to work with high-level players during the offseason going into our preseason. It taught me a different style of play, that is always something good to have, to play different styles.”
The uncertainty around the youth international calendar doesn’t faze the defender who is buzzing to return to Houston Sports Park after missing months due to the pandemic.
"It was a great experience, obviously with COVID it was a little scary at first, but they took really good precautions,” the defender said. “Everyone now is looking forward to getting back to MLS Next and travel, play high-quality games week-in and week-out. That's what the guys and I are looking forward to."