‘This has been like heaven’

Jose Cuevas (right) is second on the Charleston Battery with three goals and two assists. Charleston hosts Los Angeles today at 7:30 p.m.

Jose Cuevas’ day began before the first hint of dawn crept over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Six days a week, eight hours a day, Cuevas worked the fields in California’s central valley last summer. He picked oranges, peaches and apples in temperatures that topped 100 degrees most days.

“It was brutal work,” said Cuevas, a rookie midfielder for the Charleston Battery.

He’d finish work around 3:30 p.m., grab a quick lunch and begin the one-hour drive up Highway 99 to Fresno, where he played soccer for the Fresno Fuego, an amateur team in the United Soccer’s professional development league.

He would train for a couple of hours and then make the return trek back to his parents’ house in Farmersville, Calif., where his day had begun. After dinner and a shower, it was past 11 p.m. and time for bed.

Six hours later, he would start the routine again.

“It was a long day,” Cuevas, 22, said. “There were so many mornings when I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I knew I had to keep going.”

On Sundays, his only day off, Cuevas would go to church and then hire himself out to local soccer club teams for $30 or $40 a game.

“All the money I made working the fields went for gas and food,” Cuevas said. “If I wanted anything else, clothes or money for a movie or something, I had to work extra in the fields or play soccer with the local clubs.”

Cuevas’ dream of playing professional soccer is what kept him going.

He got his chance this season with the Battery, and he’s making the most of it.

Through seven games, Cuevas is second on the team with three goals and two assists. But statistics don’t tell the whole story. His hunger for the game has impressed everyone on the team.

“Jose has a passion for the game that few have,” said Charleston capain Colin Falvey. “He plays every game like it will be his last. That’s the way everyone should play.”

This is Cuevas’ second stint with the Battery. A year ago, Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser struggled with his decision to keep Cuevas after a strong preseason performance during the Carolina Challenge Cup.

With a week left before the start of the regular season, Anhaeuser released Cuevas, feeling the young midfielder would benefit from another season in Fresno.

“He had the quality and the skill, but he wasn’t ready physically for a full professional season,” Anhaeuser said. “He needed another year.”

Cuevas scored 11 goals for Fresno last season, and Anhaeuser toyed with the idea of bringing him back for the playoffs, but eventually decided against it. Anhaeuser eventually signed him to a contract in January.

Cuevas played in both games in this year’s Carolina Challenge Cup, recording a goal and an assist against Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew.

“Things didn’t work out for me with the Battery last year, so I came in here this season determined to make the team, contract or no contract,” Cuevas said. “I didn’t want there to be any doubt in (Anhaeuser’s) mind that I could play in this league.”

Cuevas is proving he belongs in the league, and is an early favorite to win the USL Pro Division’s rookie of the year.

“He’s more than just a goal scorer,” Anhaeuser said. “He has a very high soccer IQ and he can distribute the ball.”

Cuevas is just happy to get a day off once in a while.

“This has been like heaven,” Cuevas said. “My No. 1 focus is soccer. I don’t have to worry about working in the fields or about earning extra money.”