BRIAN SCIARETTA - Monday, October 24, 2011
After joining Oriente Petrolero in January, American defender/midfielder Alejandro Melean has enjoyed a breakout year with the club in both the Bolivian League and the Copa Libertadores.
After the first seven games of the season, Melean is off to a strong start as he has been a regular starter and has become an important part of the team's success. Oriente Petrolero currently has 14 points through the first seven games of the season which has them in second place.
Oriente has won their last three games including a 3-0 win over Aurora last Wednesday which drew a lot of press in Bolivia because a staggering five red cards were handed out between the two teams.
So far Melean is happy with the team's performance this season as they push for a Bolivian title.
"I feel good," Melean told YA from Bolivia. "We just had a big away win a couple of nights ago. It was a very heated matches but that win brought us from fourth place and into second. We're excited."
While Melean, 24, is now a rising star in the Bolivian league, his game was developed in the United States. He learned to play the sport in Miami where he was born and raised but occasionally during the summers he would travel to Bolivia to train.
It was playing NCAA soccer, however, where Melean felt he made his biggest strides as a player. During his time at Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he was named all-Patriot League Conference twice and all Mid-Atlantic his senior year.
"At Holy Cross I improved so much in every aspect of the game," Melean discussed. "My first year I was a right midfielder but my last three I was a centerback. I kind of knew I always wanted to play soccer for the rest of my life. It was my junior year I knew for sure and that I had the potential to do it. It was the way my game developed. I started getting more confident as a player during those four years."
Following his graduation, Melean wanted to stay in the United States and get a shot with MLS but he was unable to even get tryouts.
Melean then returned home to Miami to train but he was still determined to play first team soccer.
"I was looking for tryouts in MLS but there weren't enough coaches that knew me in order to recommend me," Melean recalled. "What I did after I graduated is that I trained with Miami FC for three months to get into good shape. I wanted to start my career in a first division and that's why I didn't try out for Miami FC."
After a few months in Miami, Melean traveled to Bolivia where he had a tryout with Santa Cruz-based club Blooming of the top Bolivian league, Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano (LPFB). The club did offer a contract but the terms of the deal were very low.
While Melean rejected the offer from Blooming, he would sign with LPFB club La Paz and it was there he began his professional career.
In 2010, Melean made 35 starts for La Paz and his performance there earned the interest of LPFB giant Oriente Petrolero who would then signed him at the start of 2011 in an effort to bolster their club which had qualified for the Copa Libertadores via winning the 2010 Clausura.
Initially Melean was asked to play central defense for Oriente but gradually he shifted to central midfield. His strong performances in league games saw him earn significant minutes in the Copa Libertadores where he played in all six of the team's games while making four starts in the prestigious tournament.
Oriente finished in third third place in their group and did not advance to the knockout stages but Melean still was happy with the experience to play in South America's top club tournament.
"It was the experience of a lifetime," Melean stated emphatically. "I came into Oriente after they were champions in 2010. I wasn't really expecting to get much playing time but then the coach put me in as a central defender and he even played me at left back one game. Then there was a league game against Bolivar and that was the first game I played as a center midfielder. We won 6-0 and I had a great performance."
"At the same time we are playing the Copa Libertadores and playing against big teams like Gremio in Brazil, CPD Junior in Colombia, and Leon d Huanuco in Peru and it was just an amazing experience," he added. "As a player it helps you develop even more because you are playing against different styles of play with teams from different countries."
During his time in the Bolivian League, Melean has earned the reputation as a versatile player that can play all across the midfield and backline. At the start of this season, Melean has begun to settle in at central defensive midfielder.
Still, Melean is happy to be able to play multiple positions for Oriente as his versatility has been an important asset all throughout his career. Even while he is mostly playing defensive midfield, red card suspensions have forced him once again to the central defense.
"My positions have changed throughout my life," Melean pointed out. "Until I was 15 I was a central attacking midfielder. When I was 15, my team's central defender was injured and they tried me out there and I did well. So I played there until I was 17. Then I started playing right midfielder. I've always found myself able to adapt to many different positions. What I'm playing now is primarily as a central defensive midfielder but I've also been playing center back recently too."
Melean's recent success has also seen the local press in Bolivia begin to ask questions about his international future. He was born raised in the United States but his Bolivian roots have always been strong. Aside from his parents and two younger brothers, his entire family lives in Santa Cruz.
"It has actually helped me get me more press being a player that has Bolivian blood but lived his whole life and developed also as a player in the United States - and now has come back to his roots to play here in Bolivia. There are a lot of expectations."
As for which national team he would like to play for, Melean is open to either the United States or Bolivia but he recognizes that the progress the United States has made in the sport over the past decade make a US callup more difficult.
The challenge of playing for the United States is intriguing, but for Melean, he is likely to accept an invitation from the first team to give him a call.
"I feel that it would be more of a challenge to get to the US national team," Melean said of international future. "It's clear that US soccer has surpassed Bolivian soccer but I'm open to that possibility. I would love to play for either. To tell the truth, whoever calls first, I will probably accept."
Oriente Petrolero will return to action this Sunday when they face cross-town rivals Blooming.