For instance: Do you finish your full-ride scholarship at a respected—but very, very low-key—Catholic university in North Portland, where you star for its perennially powerful men's soccer team?
Or do you turn pro after your junior year, move to Australia, join a new team in a new league, hang out at your swell bachelor pad on one of the world's most beautiful waterfronts, hit the town with your tabloid-famous teammates and see the world?
Tough call! For Alejandro Salazar, the chance to go waltzing Matilda with Sydney FC, a start-up franchise in Australia's new A-League, beat out another year as a goal-scoring ace for the University of Portland. Easily. Now, Salazar (21-year-old son of marathon legend Alberto) is getting a crash course in international jockdom. We interrupted his breakfast in Sydney to talk about a different form of higher ed.
WW: Basketball players often leave college early for the pros, but it's new for soccer players.
Alex Salazar: It's always been in the back of my mind. And after high school, when soccer became a little more serious for me, turning pro definitely became my main focus. I decided pretty early on that I would try to earn a living playing soccer. That became my priority instead of, as bad as it might sound, the academic part of college.
How'd you end up in Australia?
I'd heard from Sydney a couple of times. But UP was going into the playoffs at the time, and I wanted to devote myself to that. So I said, "Look, let's talk in a few weeks." Then we were eliminated, and I started to have a sinking feeling about playing another year in college.
A sinking feeling?
I loved UP, and I loved the team. I learned a lot there and improved a lot. But I really needed a professional atmosphere to continue growing.
What did your parents think?
They backed it. I think my mom was a little more hesitant, because I had a scholarship and all that. But my dad and I were on pretty much the same page: You can always go back to school, but you can only play pro soccer for a short time.
How's the team?
It's starting to click. Dwight Yorke, our main starting forward, was out playing in World Cup qualifiers with Trinidad, but he's back. We've won four straight.
The one tabloids call "All Night Dwight"?
[Laughs.] Well, he is pretty entertaining. And when we're with him, we tend to get recognized and pampered a bit. But he's a professional. He doesn't go out the night before games—he keeps his focus.
So what's the best part?
It's the whole professional package. I'm living on my own, playing the game I love every day and getting paid for it. We're going all kinds of cool places—to Japan for the World Club Championship. We've been to Dubai and Tahiti. We had 25,000 for our first game. You walk down the street and see people wearing Sydney FC shirts. There's a section in our stadium called the Cove, which is like 8,000 screaming maniacs.
Is it frustrating to be warming the bench?
Yeah, but I take a step back and look at my situation. I've got Dwight and two Australian national team players in front of me. These guys are 30 years old and have 10 years of pro experience. If they were lesser players, or if I wasn't performing up to my ability, I'd really be frustrated.
So what is your setup?
I'm living right on the beach with a teammate.
What? You traded North Portland for the beach?
Yeah, hard decision, huh?
Salazar prefers to be called "Alex." He played high-school ball at Jesuit.
For more about Sydney FC and the A-League, see www.a-league.com.au.