After the end of each season, Muscatine boys soccer coach Jose Varela takes time to analyze his roster for the upcoming year. He looks at who’s coming up from the lower levels and who the Muskies are losing off the varsity squad.
When Varela did that last May, one concern immediately emerged: How was Muscatine going to replace Logan Nugent, who led the Muskies with nine goals a season ago?
Enter Antonio Melendez, who spent the last two seasons playing in the Sporting Kansas City Academy.
Melendez, now a senior, scored four goals as a freshman at Muscatine, but once he took off for Kansas City, Varela didn’t think he’d ever don a Muskie uniform again.
“I didn’t expect to see him back,” Varela said. “Honestly our soccer life would definitely be a lot different without him.”
Melendez spent the past few seasons checking up on the Muskies from afar, often sending Josh Hutton and Kobe Vasquez good luck text messages before games. Now he’s the driving force behind Muscatine’s 4-3 start, as the senior ranks fifth in the state with eight goals this season.
He racked up four goals in an 8-0 win over Mount Vernon last Saturday, and Varela said Melendez has scored both out of set plays and in open play.
He’s done that despite playing center back for a majority of the season, a position that’s traditionally more defense-oriented. Thanks to good communication between Hutton, Melendez and other defenders, as well as Vasquez’s ability to find quick outlets after making saves in goal, the Muskie senior has made his presence felt all around the field.
“I definitely have to pick and choose my moments,” Melendez said. “Josh (Hutton) has a lot of responsibility playing that center midfield; if he sees me go, he’s always going to drop back for me.”
Melendez’s improvement since his freshman campaign is no coincidence, as he’s spent the past two years playing against elite competition in Kansas City. Varela says academies such as the one Melendez attended attract a lot of the top players in the country, and most of those players end up playing Division I college soccer.
Melendez is no exception, as he plans to sign his national letter of intent with Drake University in the near future.
“He has really matured as a player,” Varela said. “He was talented as a freshman when he left, but he’s just very mature now. He plugs the holes where it’s needed, he attacks weaknesses, and he’s a true leader on the field.
As a result, Melendez has brought an element of experience to this Muscatine team that's difficult to match. He played against MLS teams such as FC Dallas and Columbus Crew and international teams such as Frankfurt (Germany) and Flamengo (Brazil) as a member of Sporting KC Academy.
“When I played Flamengo, one of the kids wasn’t there because he was playing on Brazil’s Under 20 National Team,” Melendez cracked.
However, things weren’t always easy for Melendez in Kansas City. When he left Muscatine, he had just turned 16, and he spent the first four months as a developmental player trying to get on the field.
“I had to prove myself,” Melendez said. “My touches got better, my soccer IQ got better and I cut 10 pounds.”
It was a learning experience off the field, too, as Melendez became responsible for everything on his own, from staying on top of his schoolwork to learning how to cook his own meals.
Melendez said his last year in Kansas City was a very successful one, adding he couldn’t thank Jon Parry, the team’s head coach, enough for what he did for him. Melendez appeared in 15 games, including 12 as a starter in the 2016-17 season for the academy.
“It paid off because I’m a 10-times better person on and off the field,” Melendez said. “I got coached by some of the best coaches in the country and got watched by professional coaches.”
He had an offer to go back to Kansas City in the fall but opted to stay in Muscatine and play his senior season with his friends. His goal was always to play Division I soccer, and with his commitment to Drake he considers the time spent in Kansas City a success.
However, before soccer takes him out of Muscatine once again, the Muskies hope he can be the driving force behind a successful season.
“He’s really fast, has good ball control and great knowledge of the game,” Varela said. “If the rest of the team can step up, we’re going to have some good results.”