Da’vian Kimbrough, 13, wants to be more than a USL record

In the moment, the goal appeared mostly inconsequential. Luther Archimede’s 79th-minute header put the Sacramento Republic up 2-0 over the Las Vegas Lights, but while it helped secure three points amid the club’s USL Championship playoff push, it wasn’t exactly the type of moment that gets remembered.

At least not by many people.

For 13-year-old Da’vian Kimbrough, however, Archimede’s goal will probably stay will him forever.

Less than two months earlier, Kimbrough, a forward, signed a first-team contract with the Republic, becoming the youngest-ever professional soccer player in the United States. He is believed to be the youngest athlete to sign a professional contract among any of the major U.S. team sports, football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer.

With a late two-goal lead in that Oct. 1 game, Kimbrough knew the circumstances for his possible debut — where he would become the youngest professional player to appear in a game — were in place.

“A couple minutes after the goal, the coach was telling me to warm up,” Kimbrough told ESPN. “So, I kind of figured that I was going to go in the game.”

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Republic coach Mark Briggs made it official in the 87th minute, inserting the teenager for 31-year-old Spanish winger Keko, who once appeared for Atletico Madrid after matriculating through the club’s academy. Kimbrough was met on the sideline with words of encouragement from 36-year-old Rodrigo Lopez — who was playing for his sixth professional team when Kimbrough was born in 2010 — and jogged on the field to rousing applause at Heart Health Park.

“I was a little bit nervous at first, but I had an exciting feeling that kind of overtook the nervousness,” Kimbrough said. “Especially because when I was standing with the ref waiting to go in, I heard everyone behind me just screaming. I kind of had to silence it out so I could stay focused.”

There wasn’t enough time left to get a real sense of how well Kimbrough’s game stacked up to those of the grown men around him, but when he collected his first touch, he split two defenders with a pass to spring an attack. At 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, he didn’t look out of place.

To be clear, Kimbrough is not yet in a place where he is expected to meaningfully contribute to the Republic. After two months of watching him practice with the first team, though, the coaching staff and front office had seen enough that they felt a cameo under the right circumstances made sense. Had the game remained a one-goal margin, it’s unlikely Kimbrough would have seen the field, and he will not feature when the top-seeded Republic begin the Western Conference playoffs Saturday against New Mexico United.

“It made sense to sign him when we did and how we did because it was the right time for him and it was the right time for the club,” Republic general manager Todd Dunivant said to ESPN. “And whether it was a record or not, that was never the intention. That’s not what this is about. That wouldn’t be the right motivations, and that’s never been what this club has been about.

“But certainly, the recognition he’s given for it and for sort of breaking barriers is well deserved because he plays so much more maturely, acts more maturely. It’s not just how he is on the field. You see him in interviews, you see him at his press conference. He is poised and mature beyond his years.”

For Kimbrough’s parents, Dom Kimbrough and Jessica Cervantes, the path their son is on can feel surreal. They met at San Joaquin Delta College, in Northern California, where Dom played football and Jessica played basketball. In 2009, Dom earned a scholarship to play defensive end at Elizabeth City State, a Division II college in North Carolina.

Soccer was barely a blip on either of their radars.

But after Da’vian was born, all of that changed. They signed him up for several sports at a young age, including soccer when he was 4. Something about it just clicked.

“Soccer is the one that ultimately he fell in love with,” Dom Kimbrough said. “So as much as it hurt me as a football player for him not to play football [laughing], it didn’t bother me once I saw how interested he was and how much he loved [soccer]. It forced me to learn the game, and now I think I enjoy soccer more than I enjoy football at this point. That’s what’s crazy about it.”

Kimbrough was always physically mature for his age and regularly played up in age groups to play with kids his own size. At each step, there would be an adjustment period, then he would rise to the top, eventually leading his parents to take him to a tryout for a more competitive club team. That’s when they had the first real inkling that their son’s talent might be more significant than they, without backgrounds in soccer, were able to evaluate on their own.

At the tryout for NorthBay Elite Futbol Club in Solano County, a coach who had never seen Kimbrough play before approached his parents and expressed how much he thought about Kimbrough’s potential. “The sky’s the limit,” he told them.

There was also something prophetic.

“‘We’re going to push him to go to the Republic,'” Dom Kimbrough said. “That was the first thing he ever told us.”

Herein lies the value of the USL for American soccer. As great as the strides MLS has made to expand its development pipeline are, a single-tiered league will never have the resources to identify and develop all the top young talent in the United States. It’s a simple numbers problem. There are too many kids and too large an area. With its 36 teams in the top two divisions — the Championship and League One — the USL ostensibly fills in the gaps.

The Kimbrough family lives in Woodland, a city of about 60,000 people located roughly 30 minutes outside of Sacramento. Without the Republic, the odds that Kimbrough would have entered a professional setup when he did are slim.

San Jose, the closest city with an MLS club, is about two hours away under the best traffic conditions. Even if the Earthquakes were able to identify Kimbrough as a top talent at the age of 11, when he started with the Republic academy, it is unlikely the family would have been willing or able to regularly make the 230-mile round trip for him to fully participate. That logistical barrier to entry isn’t easy to solve.

Kimbrough’s first involvement with the Republic was when he went to a tryout meant for players born in 2008. He was born in 2010 and was the youngest one there. As he and his parents were leaving the tryout, they asked him how it went.

“He goes, ‘Oh, they said they liked me,'” Cervantes said. “So, we’re like, ‘OK, should we go back and talk to them or … ?'”

They did. And the coaches confirmed they did, in fact, like Kimbrough and wanted him to join the academy, which currently includes about 110 players ranging from the U13 to U17 levels and competes in the MLS Next youth leagues.

“He was a guy that stood out very quickly because he’s kind of always played up,” Dunivant said. “He’s always played one, two, three years up. He was physically advanced, technically advanced. So, we brought him in and he immediately stepped in and in two seasons scored 61 goals for our academy, which is incredible.”

Kimbrough’s dominance in MLS Next led to an invitation to play with the New York Red Bulls’ academy team as a guest player at the prestigious Bassevelde Cup in Belgium in June, where the squad competed against top European clubs Juventus, Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, West Ham United and Club Brugge. The Red Bulls won the tournament, outscoring their opponents 13-2, and Kimbrough was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

“I think we showed America can keep up over there,” Kimbrough said.

Word traveled fast. When he returned home to Northern California, several MLS teams reached out and made pitches for why Kimbrough should join their academy. He would have had his pick of any youth academy in the country, according to Dunivant. Talks got so advanced to join the Red Bulls, a club with a strong player development track record, that it briefly seemed more likely than not to happen.

“That was the destination that we literally had one foot out the door, almost inside their home at that point,” Dom Kimbrough said. “We weren’t really considering anyone else, but the Red Bulls, they had us ready to go.”

The Republic didn’t want to lose him, though, and their pitch was ultimately more compelling: a first-team contract, allowing him to remain at home (he’s the oldest of five siblings) and continue to train in a professional environment. There isn’t a way to determine which path would ultimately do the most for his development, but moving across the country at 13 would have meant gambling his childhood in way that remaining in Woodland did not.

Plus, there was USL’s recent track record of sending players to Europe. Young American players Jonathan Gomez (Louisville City to Real Sociedad), Jose Gallegos (San Antonio to Sonderjyske), Kobi Henry (Orange County SC to Stade de Reims) and Joshua Wynder (Louisville to Benfica) all moved to Europe from the league in the past two years.

“That just proves that it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be in MLS to make it from America to Europe,” Kimbrough said. “If you keep on following your path, keep on working, you can make it no matter what league you’re in.”

While in contract talks, neither Dunivant nor the Kimbroughs knew that by signing a professional contract, Da’vian would become the youngest American soccer player to ever do so. Dunivant didn’t learn that was the case until after the contract was signed and the club’s media relations officer made the realization.

“We didn’t sign a 13-year-old thinking he was going to start as a No. 9 for us in the Championship this year,” Dunivant said. “That wasn’t the goal with him, but we said, ‘Here is this incredible talent. If you don’t sign a player like Da’vian, why do you have an academy?'”

Kimbrough’s long-term goal is what might be expected for a kid who has accomplished so much, so quickly: to play in a top-five European league.

Projecting how likely it will be that he accomplishes that goal is a bit of fool’s errand. He’s still 13 years old, after all, and the list of athletic prodigies to burst on the scene in their early teens before fading into irrelevance before high school graduation isn’t a short one. It will likely be years before worthwhile projections about his true potential can be made.

Through his maternal grandfather, Kimbrough, who does not speak Spanish, is eligible to represent Mexico at the international level and has been called into two recent camps with El Tri’s U16 team. The experiences have allowed him to connect some with his Mexican heritage.

“He was really excited to go and play for Mexico,” Cervantes said. “My dad is Mexican, and me and Dom are really big on showing him all aspects of where he comes from, like, this is where you are from, this is your heritage. So, I think for him it was kind of exciting to, like, dive into his grandpa’s side to see where he’s from and get to represent that country.”

Kimbrough has yet to hear from the United States Soccer Federation, which doesn’t have a team until the U15 level and does not typically call players in early, although there have been some exceptions. The USSF started a U14 talent identification program in 2019.

In the meantime, Kimbrough will keep plugging away in Sacramento, where he trains with the first team and various academy-level teams, depending mainly on logistical factors. Although it’s likely he will get the occasional run out next year for the Republic, any playing time he receives won’t come at the expense of a competitive sacrifice.

However, the possibility that he can actually help the Republic also shouldn’t be discounted. If Barcelona can justify playing a then-15-year-old Lamine Yamal in LaLiga, who is to say a 14-year-old can’t be serviceable in a second-tier American soccer league? That is in no way to say Kimbrough should have the unfair burden of being evaluated alongside Yamal but rather to illustrate what exists in the realm of possibility.

From that perspective, there is a temptation to set unreasonable expectations. Call it the American way. But for Kimbrough, there is a much more pragmatic mindset.

“I’m not really going for the records,” he said. “I just want to get better and develop.”

Give it time.

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