Heard on the Hill

Kihuen’s Soccer Injury Led to Politics

Nevada Democrat recalls moment of career-ending injury before professional tryout

Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen learned to play soccer growing up in Mexico. (Courtesy Kihuen’s office)

While Ruben Kihuen was running for the Nevada state Senate in 2010, he held a World Cup watch party and saw his former training partner walking out onto the field.

“When he walked in, I was like, ‘You know what? It was the first Nevadan to play in the World Cup and I’m glad it’s Herculez,’” Kihuen said of professional soccer player turned ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez. “Destiny is destiny. For me, I wasn’t destined to be a professional soccer player.”

For a while, though, the freshman congressman thought he was.

Kihuen started playing soccer in Mexico at the age of 3, before moving with his family as an 8-year-old to the U.S. On Tuesday, the Democrat will play in the Congressional Soccer Game at the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s fifth annual Capital Soccer Classic.

His childhood dream was to play for his favorite team: Club Deportivo Guadalajara, also known as Chivas.

“I remember walking into a stadium when Chivas was playing [Club] América. … I saw what was 50,000 people and thought, ‘I want to wear the jersey and I want to play for my team,’” Kihuen said.

He was a star player in high school — he broke the state record in goals and assists his senior year at Rancho High School in North Las Vegas, and was named Nevada Player of the Year — but scholarship offers didn’t come because he played for a small school. So while working for the College of Southern Nevada and taking classes at a community college, he played in adult leagues in Las Vegas, hoping to catch a scout’s eye.

“I was schooling all these folks and kicking butt [in the adult leagues], but I wasn’t getting paid for it,” Kihuen recalled.

He finally saved enough money to fly to Mexico for a tryout with his beloved Chivas, but first he had to play in his adult league’s playoffs.

In the semifinal game, with the score tied and 10 minutes left, Kihuen was going one-on-one against the goalie when a defender grabbed his jersey, making him miss his shot and kick the ground instead of the ball. The defender landed on his foot.

“As soon as I felt that pain, I knew that there was something really, really wrong,” Kihuen recalled. “This is the foot where I shoot, my golden foot. The one that has been putting goals in the net for 22, 23 years.”

He had shattered all the metatarsal bones in his foot.

[Rep.-elect Kihuen Goes Office Hunting]

The doctor told him he would be able to play soccer again, but “the bad news is that a professional team will probably not invest in a player that has that type of injury. It’s very rare when your foot heals 100 percent,” Kihuen said.

His dreams of playing for Chivas were over but the injury drove him to get a degree, which led to work on campaigns and a job with former Sen. Harry Reid, before running for office himself.

New Faces on Congressional Baseball Teams — Including a Woman]

Democrats have recruited Kihuen for its congressional athletic competitions, including the Congressional Baseball Game, but the 37-year-old doesn’t think he will be running circles around Republicans.

“A couple of weeks ago, during baseball practice, I did a sprint from home to first base and I felt a little pull in my thigh,” he said. “So I’m not 100 percent. I’m letting it heal up a little bit.”

He said he also tore his ACL while playing in an indoor soccer league in Nevada three years ago. 

Aside from playing on weekends and when he finds time in D.C., he also works to help young soccer players find the means to be able to try out for organized leagues.

Tuesday’s Congressional Soccer Game is at 6:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium, sandwiched between an embassy and staffer tournament. 

Here are the game’s rosters, pending any last-minute changes.

Democrats

  • Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon
  • Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida
  • Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada
  • Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington
  • Michael Brownlie, legislative director for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema
  • Clinton Britt, chief of staff for Rep. Paul Tonko
  • Jason Steinbaum, Democratic staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Committee
  • Eric Fins, staffer for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III
  • Kevin Karpary, senior legislative assistant to Castor
  • Arturo Sarukhan, former ambassador of Mexico
  • J.T. Dorsey, former defender for the Harrisburg City Islanders
  • Ben Olsen, D.C. United head coach and former player
  • John Harkes, former member of the U.S. men’s national team
  • Janusz Michallik, soccer commentator, former member of the U.S. men’s national team
  • Heather Mitts, three-time Olympic gold medalist, former member of the U.S. women’s national team
  • Diego Ruiz, vice president of global public policy and government affairs for PepsiCo
  • Jonathan Williams, producer for the Men in Blazers Show
  • Tyler Newhall, government affairs associate at Quicken Loans
  • Frank Journoud, senior director of cybersecurity & technology policy at Oracle
  • David Sutphen, board member of the U.S. Soccer Foundation
  • Ian Musselman, director of government affairs at Continental
  • Sarah Potter, government affairs coordinator at Anheuser-Busch

Republicans

  • Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska
  • Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida
  • Rep. Steve Knight of California
  • Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois
  • Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota
  • Rep. David Valadao of California
  • Cole Rojewski, Valadao’s chief of staff
  • John Chapuis, policy adviser to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn
  • Katie Patru, senior committee staffer for the House Administration Committee
  • Natalie Rogers, chief of staff to Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
  • Steven Pfrang, LaHood’s chief of staff
  • Thomas Hester, legislative director for Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas
  • Josh Martin, legislative director for Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas
  • Drew Wayne, legislative director for Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y.
  • Mark Williams, chief of staff for Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas
  • Cobi Jones, former member of the U.S. men’s national team
  • Lori Lindsay, former member of the U.S. women’s national team and the Washington Spirit
  • Rob Stone, sports commentator 
  • Devon McTavish, former D.C. United player
  • Zach Thornton, former member of the U.S. men’s national team
  • Steve Hartell, director of U.S. public policy at Amazon
  • Cully Stimson, board member of the U.S. Soccer Foundation.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.