Before each game he prays to God for no injuries and adds, “... and if you have time, please make me score.”
His quickness with the ball is superior, his moves are inventive and his energy is contagious. Columbia College soccer coach John Klein said Juan Pablo Irrera is among the elite attackers in the NAIA.
Games such as Sept. 5 against No. 15 Grand View College showed Irrera’s ability.
In Des Moines, Iowa, Irrera pulled the Cougars out of 1-0 and 2-1 deficits with goals, and in overtime he scored on a bicycle kick.
“Each and every one of his teammates was in awe of what he could do,” Klein said. “He showed he was going to do anything it took to win.”
Led by Irrera’s 15 goals and eight assists, the Cougars won all seven conference games, making them the American Midwest Conference champions for the second consecutive season. As a result, they will host a Region V Tournament game at 7 p.m. Nov. 13.
The No. 19 Cougars (13-5) finish the regular season Thursday night against the University of Mary in Leavenworth, Kan.
Irrera isn’t the fastest guy on the team. His success proves he doesn’t need to be.
Irrera, a junior, is a two-time NAIA honorable mention All-American.
“He is one of those guys that is always there at the right time and the right place and makes things happen,” teammate Ignacio Raul Recondo said. “You watch him play and it pumps up the rest of the players. You can’t watch him play and decide to not put more energy into your own game.”
Irrera has also been twice named All-Conference and twice received All-Region V Honors.
Irrera and Klein met in the summer of 2000 at Southern Illinois University when Irrera, a Buenos Aires, Argentina, native, came to the United States with a group of about 100 players looking to be noticed by college coaches. Through a translator, Klein convinced Spanish-speaking Irrera to visit Columbia College.
“I chose this school because of the city and because I heard the school was very good,” Irrera said. “When I saw the college and the weather and the green space and the forests, all that stuff, I knew.”
Next year will be Irrera’s last, but the Cougars have faced the challenges of losing him before.
After his freshman year in 2000, Irrera was homesick. Returning to Argentina, he learned his mother had cancer.
“I think 2001 was the worst year of my life,” Irrera said. “It’s so hard for a guy coming to the United States that feels alone and every single day he can’t speak with anybody. When you go to lunch and you sit with people who are speaking English and you don’t know anything about the language, it’s hard.”
With Irrera’s offensive success gone, the team maintained success with the strength of its midfield and backfield, Klein said. The team finished second in conference and ended 12-5-1.
Reflecting on his year off, Irrera said he feels grateful to be back in Columbia.
“You really know what you are missing when you quit something,” Irrera said. “When I went back to Argentina, I was very sad because of my decision, but I couldn’t do anything; my mom was sick so I decided to stay with her.”
A few months before the 2002 season, Klein asked Irrera if he was interested in playing again. It took Irrera a week to respond.
While in Argentina, Irrera attended a school to improve his English.
“When the coach called me and said, ‘Hey, J.P., you want to come back?’ I went to that school a hundred times per day to try to improve my English,” Irrera said.
Since, Irrera has become proficient in English and is communicating well with teammates.
“He clicks with (midfielder Stephen) McMullen … and Ivan Radenkovic (a forward),” Klein said. “Those three have made life difficult for opposing defenses. They seem to understand each other, what the other is going to do and where to go. All three on the field at the same time are a big threat to opponents.”
When confronted with the idea of being the star of the team, Irrera quickly rejects the idea.
“You are not one player against 11 players,” Irrera said. “I cannot play one versus 11. I need my team, each one has to be a good player. If we win, everybody’s the star.”
Irrera said he tries to repay Klein for letting him play on his team.
“He gave me the chance,” Irrera said. “I give to him my skills, what I know about soccer. “
Irrera has had a ball at his feet since early childhood and has a dream to play professionally.
“In Argentina, when you are born you begin playing soccer,” Irrera said. “My first gift was a soccer ball. My mom told me when I was 8 months I saw a balloon and stood up to kick it.”
Klein said the team tries to build on Irrera’s talents instead of getting caught up in watching him play.
“I wouldn’t think of doing the things with the ball that he thinks of doing,” Klein said. “Very few can do what he does. He’s very creative, very tricky; he gets away with it and makes it look so easy and so natural.”
Irrera said 2003 has been one of the best years of his life. The team’s success plays a big part in that happiness.
“He’s smiling all the time,” Recondo said. “It’s very rare to see him in a bad mood. He has passion and skills so that’s a pretty nice combination. You see a lot of people that have skills and no passion. “
Despite Irrera’s offensive talent, Klein said Irrera’s ability to energize the team is his biggest contribution.
“He just brings it every single time,” Klein said. “I wouldn’t want to play against him.”