Wilmer Cabrera Jr. dribbles the ball down the pitch in a match last season. Cabrera was named Big East Freshman of the Year following the 2019 season. Collegian file photo.
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Wilmer Cabrera Jr. wanted to impress his dad. So he let loose a beautiful, booming kick from 30 yards out that singed the back of the net.
Wilmer Cabrera Sr. walked up to his son, who was 15 years old at the time.
“Son,” Cabrera Jr. remembers his dad saying, “You have a better left-foot than I ever did. Your technique is better than I had at your age. If you keep the way you’re going, you’ll be better than I ever was.”
Cabrera Jr.’s head started spinning. Better than his dad, the right-back who starred on Colombia’s national team from 1989 through 1998, appeared in two World Cups and had an 18-year professional career?
“When he told me that, it was pretty big,” Cabrera Jr. said. “It just gave me that extra push of faith that like, yeah, I could really do it. He told me that I could be better than him, so I want to prove him right.”
And, four years later, Cabrera Jr., as a freshman striker on the Butler men’s soccer team, proved his father right, recording eight goals and three assists, and winning the Big East Freshman of the Year in 2019.
Never treated differently
Ever since Cabrera Jr. could remember, he’s played soccer. He wasn’t old enough to recall his dad’s professional career, but went to extreme lengths to understand it better. Digging through old VCR videos. Asking question after question to his dad.
“[My dad] never forced me to play soccer,” Cabrera Jr. said. “He’s always asked me: Is this what you want to do?” And then, he’s like: All right, then I’m going to help you to get where you want.”
Helping his son get where he wants means never treating him differently from another player. It means employing the same disciplinarian, hard-nosed, straight-shooting coaching style with his son. It means teaching him the soccer-style that empowered Cabrera Jr. to escape the slums of Colombia and play under the close watch of drug lords like Pablo Escobar.
As Wilmer Jr. was growing up, Wilmer Sr. took to training him. One of these training sessions took place in New York. Cabrera Jr. was 12 years old. He was training with his father, his older brother David, and Kevin Garcia, then a defender with the Long Island Rough Riders, a team in USL League Two. They were going through a drill when Cabrera Jr. stepped up. He sailed his shot over the net.
“Come on, fix your touch!” Cabrera Sr. yelled.
“That’s what I liked about Wilmer: He was always a straight-shooter with me and I imagine with [Wilmer Jr.],” Garcia said. “Because all he wants is for his son to play at the highest level and to reach his full potential. But for [Wilmer Jr.], it’s easy to feel nervous when Wilmer’s around because of how accomplished he is. It’s an element of having your parents around and wanting to impress your parents… Almost to an extent where it hinders us in our performance.”
A father’s expectations
After playing with the Colorado Rapids Youth Academy from 2011 through 2016, the Cabrera family moved to Houston because Wilmer Sr. was hired as the next head coach of the Houston Dynamo, a team in the MLS. Cabrera Jr. started playing for the Houston Dynamo USL team, the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. The transition to a higher professional level, at first, proved difficult.
After games, his dad would call him, a tradition that continues to this day. In this moment, and whenever he misses easy shots, Cabrera Sr. repeated a phrase to his son: “Clinical strikers get paid the big bucks.” Clinical? Far from it.
Being a son means wanting to prove your father right. A father’s expectations — or what the son perceives his father expects of him — can be empowering the same way they can be crippling. The enigma that is the father-son relationship explains why Wilmer Jr. went by Andy for the first 18 years of his life.
And it explains why, when he messed up in practice with the Dynamo — he was called up midway through the season — he felt like the older teammates were thinking he was on the team solely because of his dad, the head coach at the time. Or why, when the team’s Twitter page would often mention that he was Wilmer Cabrera’s son, he cringed. Or why, when stories were written about him, the comments were flooded with questions about Wilmer’s place on the team, he couldn’t help but question himself.
“The coach’s sons are on the development team woohoo big whoop,” a user with the handle of “bmuras292” commented on an SBNation story written about Cabrera Jr., David, and Wilmer Sr. in September 2018. “From what I’ve watched of RGV [Rio Grande Valley] this year neither of them are really even remotely MLS prospects and if Wilmer wasn’t the coach of the first I wouldn’t be surprised if neither of them could make the team at RGV.”
A son always wants to prove his dad right. For Cabrera Jr., that means putting the ball into the back of the net. When a son struggles to fulfill his father’s expectations, he feels the pressure. That’s what Cabrera Jr. felt when he struggled to score in the beginning of the 2018 season.
One game, Cabrera Jr. missed shot after shot. The first half ended. At halftime, in the locker room, then-teammate Victor Garza, who was once a member of the U-17 USA National Team coached by Cabrera Sr., walked up to the frustrated Cabrera Jr.
“It’s gonna get there,” Garza told him. “Not every shot is going to be a goal. You might have 10 chances and you might score one, or you might score two. I always told him to have patience. He had this rush and urgency to score all the time.”
Cabrera Jr. started working harder, longer, smarter. Before practice, he volleyed with his brother. After practice, he finished shots. He spent extra time in the weight room, primarily strengthening his upper body. More lightheartedly difficult activities included a nutmeg competition — trying to pass through each other’s legs — with his brother and Garza.
And, 28 games into his professional career, Cabrera Jr.’s hard work paid off. In the 82nd minute against Las Vegas Lights FC, Cabrera Jr. stepped up to the penalty line and buried the shot into the lower right corner of the net. It was his first goal as a professional. Ecstatic, he ran to the sideline and jumped up to face the bench. He clasped his hands together to form a heart-shape, pointing to his brother David, who was also on the team. The hand gesture is a ritual Cabrera Jr. still performs whenever he scores a goal when his family is watching. Over the next 14 games, Cabrera Jr. tallied three more goals.
“Once I played a game and I scored, things changed,” Cabrera Jr. said.
Writing his own script
Paul Snape, Butler men’s soccer head coach, couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
“Wilmer Cabrera Jr. is on the recruiting market?” Snape remembers thinking to himself in the summer of 2018.
He logged onto his computer in his office in Hinkle Fieldhouse and looked up the name Wilmer Cabrera Jr. He hadn’t heard much about the son, but knew of the dad.
Cabrera Jr. scored 17 goals in 22 games in his senior season at IMG Academy, Snape learned. Although he was playing for a professional team in the USL, Snape discovered, Cabrera Jr. had not accepted a contract, meaning he could enroll in college.
Sitting in his office, Snape called in Brandon Guhl, then a rising senior and Butler’s top goal scorer from the year prior.
“Hey, I’m recruiting Wilmer Cabrera Jr.,” Guhl remembers Snape telling him.
Guhl said he looked at him “cross-eyed.”
“How the f*** are you gonna get him here?” Guhl asked Snape. “Also, his dad is the coach of the Dynamo, he’s playing in the USL, why does he want to come to Butler?”
“We’re building a program, he wants to be a part of it,” Guhl said Snape responded. “He wants to write his own script.”
One week later, Guhl met him at captain’s practice — a weeklong captain-led practice that coaches are not permitted by NCAA rules to attend. While Cabrera Jr. flourished on the field, Bulldog teammates remember him as quiet, reserved.
As the season wore on, Cabrera Jr. became more comfortable off the field. He became a regular at early Saturday hangouts where the teammates would watch soccer. Cabrera Jr. would root for his favorite teams, Manchester United and the Houston Dynamo, where his dad was coaching at the time. On Fridays, he started joining his teammates at Yats, a Cajun restaurant at 54th and College, and when the Butler women’s soccer team played, he started to join his teammates to watch their games, too.
“He’s a super genuine dude,” Guhl said. “He genuinely wanted to shake everyone’s hands, look you in the eye. He’s always one of those guys who backs up whatever he says. If he was going to meet you for lunch, he would be there. If he was going to meet you in the training room, he would be there.”
On the field, Cabrera Jr. was impressive in his first season. Most unforgettable of his statistics, undoubtedly, were his six game-winning goals, which led the Big East and ranked fourth nationally. One game-winner stood out among the rest — not just because of his thrilling play, but also his humble attitude.
It was Sept. 12, 2019, against Wisconsin in the Bud and Jackie Sellick Bowl, 49th minute. Cutting down the middle of the field, Cabrera Jr. received a pass from midfielder Alex Lehtinen, took a touch on his left foot and bent the ball into the left side of the goal past the outstretched arms of the Badger goalkeeper.
After scoring, Cabrera Jr. celebrated with his teammates, turned his head to the stands, and clasped his hands together in a heart formation, pointing to the stands, where his brother and mother cheered.
Fifteen minutes later, after postgame media interviews, only Cabrera Jr. and Coach Snape remained on the field. Cabrera Jr. picked up the remaining orange cones, trash, and soccer balls and brought them into the locker room. As he walked into the locker room, his teammates pounced on him. After they calmed down, Snape led a post-game talk, the team stretched, and they walked out of the locker room. On his way back to his dorm, his dad called him. Excited, Cabrera Jr. told him the sequence of his game-winning goal. His dad congratulated him. After the call ended, Cabrera Jr. smiled.