The floodlights of Bonney Field cut through the unseasonably cool air of an early August evening to illuminate a wild scene on the pitch below.
It's late in the season, and Sacramento Republic FC is locked in a tight battle for a playoff spot. Grimacing players sprint, leap, and slide across the field as the sold-out stands shake with 11,000 fans screaming for every shot, collision, and corner kick; drums thunder from the field's north end where the professional soccer team's resident superfans, the Tower Bridge Battalion, lead spectators in rousing, nonstop chants.
After one of the most successful college careers in the Sac State program's history, Max Alvarez is playing on the biggest stage with Sacramento Republic FC. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
There in the middle of the madness is Max Alvarez. The star midfielder is a force, his black cleats a blur as he sets up passes, contests ballhandlers, and drives to the goal with defenders in pursuit. For Alvarez, 24, this is the realization of a lifelong dream as a member of a franchise that has become the hottest ticket in town.
"It's crazy how quickly the team has developed in such a short time, how many fans we had before even touching a ball," Alvarez says. "It just goes to show how there's a lot of support for soccer in this city. ... It's something special."
Alvarez has played soccer almost all his life. But at Sacramento State, where he was one of the best players in the program's history, he realized he had the skills to take his game pro. He graduated with a communications degree in 2013, the same year that soccer made its way back to the capital region.
In 2014, as a starter for Republic, Alvarez helped the team win the United Soccer League championship. In the process, Republic galvanized a massive following in the region and beyond, selling out nearly every game and sparking a Major League Soccer expansion bid.
Off the field, Alvarez is humble, thoughtful, and deferential to his "wonderful teammates" and top-notch coaching staff. But while he may not be boisterous, Alvarez is unquestionably confident about his abilities on the field: He was one of just two members of the inaugural 2014 squad who were hand-selected from open tryouts, beating out hundreds of other players, many of whom also went on to pro careers, for a coveted spot with Republic.
"It was pretty intimidating afterward to see all these names (of other players at the tryout) because I knew a lot about them," he says. "So it's fortunate to get this opportunity, because obviously the team believes in me."
That belief is well-founded, as the young midfielder has established himself on one of the best clubs in the league and the most popular up-and-coming franchise in the region. His road to the pros started at a very young age and cut straight through Sacramento State.
Max was born to parents Salvador and Antonia Alvarez in Napa and almost immediately took to the beautiful game.
Max Alvarez, who starred for the Hornets from 2009 to 2012, addresses the 2015 Sac State men's soccer team. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
"Since I was a kid, I always wanted to play professionally," Alvarez says. He was a transcendent scorer at Napa Valley High School, earning Napa County Player of the Year with 42 goals as a senior in 2008. When it came time to choose colleges, he wanted to stay close to home and be someplace where he could hone his craft. His older brother Sal went to Sacramento State and gave it glowing reviews, and Max followed suit.
"The soccer program was up-and-coming, and I knew some of the players were pretty good," he says. "That and how close it was to home made my decision for going to Sac State."
In the classroom, Alvarez started out as a business major but switched to communications because of his affinity for public relations. Those people skills worked well on the soccer field; during college, Alvarez also coached youth soccer with BOCA Capital Athletic Soccer Academy (now part of Union FC).
But it was on the pitch that Alvarez put himself on the map. As a freshman in 2009, he led the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in scoring, was named second-team freshman All-American by Soccer America, and led the Hornets to the first of consecutive NCAA tournament bids, both times reaching the second round.
"Right then and there I thought, 'You know, I have a really good shot of pursuing my career,' " he says.
Alvarez won all-league honors again in 2011 and finished his college career as one of the most dominant all-around players in the program's history, ranking fifth in assists, fourth in goals, and third in points.
But the most important thing he learned was how to conduct himself both on and off the field.
"The coaching staff (at Sac State) had a lot to do with the player I am now," Alvarez says. "They helped me develop not only as a player - technically, tactically - but just as a human being as well. That's very important, especially at this level. You get players coming in and out every day, and it's important to get that chemistry, and if you're a good person and you get along with your teammates, you're going to succeed."
Those experiences ultimately primed him for a level of competition few players reach.
The vibe at Republic's practice at Cosumnes River College could not be more different from the raucous din of the game. The thousands of screaming fans have been replaced by a handful of bystanders, and the only sounds that pierce the windy, cloud-streaked morning are the thwacks of cleats on the ball and calls from players to one another - "Back, back, back!" "Get there!" "Aqui, aqui!"
Now in his 27th year at the helm, Sac State men's soccer head coach Michael Linenberger catches up with his former player Max Alvarez. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Alvarez practices with the team four days a week, with additional weight training every other practice and matches on the weekends, all part of a regimen that ensures endurance over the course of the grueling eight-month season.
"There are a lot of things I learned that I didn't learn at the college level," he says. "You have to be a lot sharper, you have to eat healthier. You can't slack; you can't party one day and expect to perform the next. This is your job, and you have to take it seriously. If it's something you really want to do, you have to put the work into it."
That includes improving on his weak foot - he is left-footed - perfecting touches, shooting, and making sure to get enough rest in between training and games. In rare moments of downtime, Alvarez enjoys golfing and playing basketball with friends.
But another aspect of life as a pro is his role in the community. Growing up, Alvarez looked up to pro players and dreamed of filling those cleats; today, he has kids looking up to him. He takes the role very seriously.
"I've always wanted to become professional, just like these kids do that always come to our home games," he says. "They have the same ambition and the same dreams, and it's important to set an example. You do your own thing on the field, and then off the field you've got to give back to the community."
With Republic, Alvarez has plenty of opportunities to do just that. Whether visiting kids in hospitals or appearing at youth soccer camps, signing days, or any number of other outreach events with the team, Alvarez says the club gives its players opportunities almost every week to get out in the community.
As a member of one of the sport's fastest-growing franchises, his impact is felt throughout the region.
It all comes with the territory of being a professional athlete, and during a time of unprecedented change in Sacramento, Alvarez is part of a major piece of the city's emerging identity, one also shaped by the University where he grew into the professional he is today.
Looking to the years after soccer, Alvarez says he wants to stay involved with the sport and ideally coach college ball someday. In the meantime, he is just enjoying the ride, taking the region and its innumerable fans along with him.
When asked what he loves most about playing, he does not hesitate. "Everything," he says. "I look forward to every single game we play, trainings every day, just this whole experience. ... This is like a dream."
– John Blomster