Sometimes even Raphael Cox can’t believe he’s a professional soccer player, a rookie on Real Salt Lake.
It’s been an unexpected journey.
Since graduating from Stadium High in Tacoma five years ago, Cox has gone from being an overlooked, lightly recruited high school graduate, to an All-Pacific-10 Conference forward at the University of Washington and then a fourth-round draft pick. He’s the late bloomer that never give up.
“I’m definitely a late bloomer, but I’ve wanted to play professional soccer my whole life,” Cox said in a phone interview this week. “It was surprising when I got drafted. But I’ve worked hard for it. So, I would say it’s deserved.”
Cox will likely come off the bench today against the Seattle Sounders FC in a game in Sandy, Utah.
Cox, with a reputation for gritty, determined play, impressed the Real Salt Lake coaches at a combine before January’s MLS draft.
“We didn’t know much about him before the combine,” said Jason Kreis, the Salt Lake head coach. “But what we saw in the combine was a player who didn’t look like he had any back down. He looked extremely competitive. He looked like he wanted to go at defenders. He was a quick, athletic player.”
It was enough to persuade Kreis to select Cox with the 54th pick of the draft.
“I was following the draft on the Internet with my girlfriend,” Cox said. “When I was drafted, I was very surprised and very happy.”
Cox has played in five of the Salt Lake’s 18 games. Kreis, seeing potential in Cox as a defender, has moved his speedy rookie to left half. Cox has been practicing at left half and left forward.
“I think he’s capable of playing left half and of becoming a very, very good one,” Kreis said. “He’s already shown moments where he’s capable of being a decent offensive player for us. But I think he’s got the ability and the potential to be a very, very good outside back in this league as well.”
The position change has been an adjustment for Cox, who has been an offensive player his entire life. His senior year at Washington, Cox led the team with seven goals and six assists. He scored a pair of game-winning goals in overtime in his three years as a starter with the Huskies.
Cox played one season at Highline Community College, leading the team to the conference championship. He’s just the third Highline player to be drafted.
“I’ve been an offensive player my whole life,” Cox said. “Left back is something I’ve never played before. Learning the professional ins and outs is already hard at your own position. But to learn a position you’ve never played before is very hard.”
Not that Cox is complaining. He sees the benefit in learning two positions.
“There hasn’t been any push back at all from him. No complaints,” Kreis said. “Raphael’s got a fantastic mentality. He’s a great competitor. If he can get himself to play a couple of positions, it will do nothing but help his career.”
Cox scored his first and only goal of the season in a 3-1 loss to Columbus two weeks ago. He came into the game with 20 minutes left and with Salt Lake trailing 3-0. He took a pass 20 yards out in front of the goal and drilled a shot past the goalkeeper.
“It was an amazing moment,” Cox said. “I just wish it could have been under better circumstances. Maybe a home game or a game-winning goal. But it’s always great to score. So, I’ll take it.”
Cox played in the closing minutes of a 2-0 loss against Seattle at Quest Field in March. About 100 friends sat with Cox’s parents at that game, cheering for Cox.
“It was amazing,” Cox said. “Even though I didn’t get much playing time, it was great just getting in and feeling the atmosphere.”
It’s a moment Cox thought might never happen his senior year at Stadium.
“Stadium seems like a long time ago,” said Cox, the Narrows League MVP his senior year. “But, then again, it still seems just like yesterday. I’ve come a long ways.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5443