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Soccer-playing friends on different continents reconnect in Philadelphia

CJ dos Santos and Juan Blanco are both home for a summer break from their clubs in Portugal and Argentina

CJ dos Santos (left) and Juan Blanco pose for a photo while watching Portugal play Iran at Cafe Liz in Philadelphia
Matt Ralph

A talent for the game CJ dos Santos and Juan Blanco developed when the 17-year-olds were young kids playing for Philadelphia Soccer Club and honed with FC Delco and the Philadelphia Union Academy has taken the two friends to different continents in pursuit of a dream.

“Before we lived like 10 minutes away, now we’re at least a 10 hour flight away from each other,” dos Santos said, while hanging out with Blanco earlier this week at Cafe Liz in the Olney section of Philadelphia, where they were having lunch and watching the Portugal vs Iran match.

Dos Santos, who signed a professional contract with SL Benfica in 2016, has been rising up the youth ranks of the famed Portuguese club while Blanco is about eight months into his time in the youth academy for Club Atlético Belgrano in Argentina.

A goalkeeper who has received regular call-ups to U.S. youth international teams, dos Santos was one of the Philadelphia Union’s top prospects when he left for Portugal in the summer of 2016. Because of his dual citizenship through his parents, he was able to sign a professional contract at 16 and has since played for Benfica’s U17 and U19 teams while getting opportunities to train with the first team and play in the UEFA youth league.

“Of course it’s hard to leave behind my friends and my old club, but I think from a footballing standpoint, I made the right decision,” dos Santos said, looking back on his first two years as a young professional in Europe.

Blanco made his way to Argentina last winter and after trialing with Belgrano received an invite to join the club’s youth academy. An attacking midfielder, Blanco traveled a similar if less high-profile path as CJ from Philadelphia SC to FC Delco and the Philadelphia Union to now playing for a club in the city where his father grew up.

“It was definitely inspiring (seeing CJ go to Portugal) because it motivated me to look into other things too and showed me that it’s possible to be able to leave your family, your friends to follow a dream,” Blanco said.

While both boys have family members nearby — Juan lives with a relative and CJ regularly spends time with relatives on weekends — balancing their training schedules and staying on top of school work while their parents are thousands of miles away is anything but typical for American teenagers.

“That standard is higher for us and for me I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of foreign players so we have that in common coming from different places,” dos Santos said. “It’s definitely a lot of responsibility.”

For Juan, who had been to Belgrano to visit before, moving to Argentina meant learning his way around and fully immersing himself into the culture both on the field and off.

“Obviously there’s always the cons of things but it’s probably on the better side because you learn new things,” Blanco said. “It’s also part of growing because you don’t have your parents with you and everything so you have to learn to do things yourself.”

Being home, both Blanco and dos Santos have been able to reconnect not only with each other but with family and friends while also adjusting to some of the aspects of American culture they’ve forgotten about living their lives so far from Philadelphia.

“Everything feels a little different coming back,” said dos Santos, who after taking it easy for a couple weeks has been back on a schedule at the gym and has trained with West Chester United. “Like going to a different country almost.”

The World Cup viewing experience on Monday was somewhat painful for CJ as the potential scenarios where Portugal might not advance unfolded in the closing minutes of the match. When Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty earlier in the match, Juan tried not to act too happy when remarking how “Messi isn’t the only one now” to miss a penalty in the World Cup.

Blanco, of course, had his own roller coaster experiencing watching Argentina advance the next day through an 86th minute game-winner by Marcos Rejo.

Dos Santos and Blanco could have shared team allegiances for their home country had the United States not crashed out of the tournament in qualifying, something CJ heard quite a bit about from his teammates in Portugal when he got back from India, where he was representing the United States in the 2017 U17 World Cup last October.

“It’s difficult not seeing one of your countries in the World Cup because that’s obviously where you want to see them,” dos Santos said.

That doesn’t mean dos Santos or Blanco aren’t also passionate about the teams from the countries they now call home. Still, both said they’d rather be back home in Philadelphia cheering with family and friends than at watch parties in Portugal and Argentina.

“This is home,” dos Santos said.