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Nomads player gets a shot at the big time

Joey Matibag grew up playing just about every sport imaginable - from baseball to basketball to volleyball and soccer - but it wasn’t until this year that he started specializing. He said he chose soccer because it’s the one sport he plays best and the one he enjoys the most.

And now that his athletic focus is trained solely on the beautiful game, he is finding that he’s playing at a very high level. Matibag, 16, will be a junior this fall at La Jolla High School. And while he plays on the Vikings varsity soccer team, his experiences competing with his club team have been even more valuable.

Matibag is a defender for the under-17 team with the La Jolla Nomads, recognized throughout Southern California and across the nation as one of the country’s premier youth soccer organizations. Through his association with the Nomads, he has had the opportunity to play against some of the top competition in the country, as well as to travel near and far to play the game he loves.

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Matibag is in his fourth year playing for the Nomads, following about three years with the club team La Jolla Impact. Tryouts for the club’s many teams are held every April, and players are often asked to join the club when coaches discover them at local high schools or middle schools.

The team practices three times a week during the summer at the club’s home field.

Last week, Matibag played in a Red Bull National League event in Orange County. The league continues with three more weekends of play spaced out throughout the year, and they will take Matibag and his Nomads teammates to Texas, Chicago and North Carolina before the league culminates in its championship.

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At last weekend’s event, held at a soccer complex in Orange, there were 20 teams, and the Nomads won all three of their games. As they move into the next leg of the league’s play, they are tied with the Irvine Strikers for first place in their division with nine points.

“All the teams in this tournament were really tough,” Matibag said. “Some of the teams there were really good, so it was really fun. A lot of the kids were older than me, and they were bigger and faster than me. “Some of the guys on the East Coast teams were huge, so they knocked you around a lot. It was a good challenge for me.”

The league is sponsored by Red Bull energy drinks, which puts on a number of youth soccer leagues and tournaments for boys and girls players all over the country. It brings together some of the top teams from across the United States, aiming to create a true national championship of youth club soccer.

“Red Bull National League 17 further demonstrates Red Bull’s commitment to soccer in this country,” Red Bull New York sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena, the former national team coach, said on the league’s Web site. “This will give young players the opportunity to compete against not just the best clubs in their region, but the best in the entire nation. We are excited to be a part of a league that will showcase some of the top youth teams in the United States.”

Despite the fact that he is competing with some of the best players his age in the area, Matibag’s game is still a work in progress. He said the best parts of his game are his ability to mark offensive players and the way he can make runs up the line to help get the ball out to his team’s half of the field. He believes he could improve tactically - finding passes quicker or finding the ball better at times.

So far this summer, Matibag and his teammates have played mostly throughout Southern California, traveling to San Bernardino and other spots throughout the Southland. The team will also play in an event called The Academy, put on by the U.S. Soccer Association, that starts in the next month and also features top-level national competition.

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Matibag started playing soccer when he was 6 or 7 years old. The game attracted him more than other sports, he said, because of the many ways it is different from so many other sports.

“It’s just fast-paced, and there’s a lot of contact,” Matibag said, “and I like that. It’s just so much fun to play.”

Matibag has been grateful for the opportunity to play club soccer at a high level with the Nomads and to play against top-notch competition in the Red Bull league.

“This is way better than high school,” Matibag said. “This really is the best of the best coming together to play at a high level. “When you go back for the high school season, you really feel like you’ve improved a lot because of what you do in the club season.”