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N.M.'s Muniz In Class By Himself

SANTA ANA PUEBLO – This is the curious case of Nico Muniz:

He should be a senior at Cleveland High School this fall. But having already completed his academic curriculum elsewhere, he won't be anywhere near the Storm campus in 2010.

He spent his junior year abroad. After nine months in Spain, he's well versed in the ways of European soccer.

And soon, Muniz will begin shopping for a college. In the meantime, he can't say for sure where he'll be playing for the next few months, or even what country he'll call home.

"It hasn't been easy," said Muniz, 17, "but I have no regrets on the road we've taken."

Considered one of New Mexico's best talents, Muniz this weekend will be trying to help his club team, the U-17 Elite FC Gladiators, to the nationals via the U.S. Youth Soccer Far West Regional Championships.

Muniz on Friday had a goal and hit the crossbar on another shot as the Gladiators beat Utah's Blue Knights 93 by a 3-0 count in the Far West quarterfinals. The Gladiators are one of four New Mexico boys entries still alive, along with U-16, U-18 and U-19. Semifinal action is 8 a.m. today for all four sides.

"Nico is one of the best players in this tournament in any age group," said New Mexico U-19 girls head coach John Shepard, who coached Muniz at Rio Rancho High School.

This is where Muniz's story started to take an interesting – and international – turn.

When he left Rio Rancho after his sophomore year, he was already one of the state's top prep prospects. But, he'd always had a hankering to play overseas.

With his older sister Megan away at the Air Force Academy and her schooling paid for, the family realized it could shell out the $30,000 needed to send Nico out of the country for a year.

"He wanted to be challenged playing soccer," said his father, Ruben. "And high school soccer wasn't going to be as challenging as he wanted."

Through the EduKick program, which is something of a sports exchange program, Muniz – who developed an affinity for the Spanish brand of soccer – was placed in Spain, just outside Madrid where he played virtually nonstop from September until May.

He competed on two teams while he completed his high school requirements online through the Rio Rancho Cyber Academy. Muniz said he's taken all the necessary courses, and his graduation becomes official "whenever they turn in my paperwork."

The only real class Muniz had in Spain was a daily Spanish course. Otherwise, it was all soccer, all the time. As it is everywhere in Europe.

"It's a religion," said Muniz. "Everybody's week depends on how their team does. If Real Madrid lost, everybody was in a bad mood. If they won, it was a party in the streets. It was a great environment."

Beyond that, Spain also suited his desire to be immersed in a very particular style of soccer.

"The Spanish style has always appealed to me," Muniz said. "They've always controlled the ball. I love how they're always moving, always playing so naturally. And I wanted to be in that environment."

He began the school year on a team with other 16- and 17-year-olds. When he returned for the second semester, he was bumped up to play with 18- and 19-year-olds.

"I feel like I've come back (to the U.S.) as a completely different player," Muniz said. "A better understanding (of the game), more focus. There, if you don't perform, you don't play. You have to fight for your spot. And I've improved in almost every area, I believe. The reason I went there was to improve. Nothing more."

Once the club season ends, the hunt for a college begins. His list includes Georgetown, Seattle University, St. John's, Cal Poly and New Mexico.

If Muniz gets an early start in college, that program can likely hook him up with a local club team until he starts his freshman season in the fall of 2011. He may remain with the Gladiators if he commits to the Lobos. He might even return to Spain, he said.

As Muniz – who now speaks fluent Spanish – prepared to leave the State Farm Soccer Complex on Friday, he was asked how he'd watch Spain's final group stage match on Friday against Chile. On Univision, or ESPN?

"ESPN," he said with a laugh. "They have high def."