So much has changed for Inter Miami since its inaugural game Mar. 1, 2020, on the road against Los Angeles FC, pre-COVID, back when team owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas could only dream of luring international stars to their nascent club.
The team today, with Lionel Messi attracting sellout crowds and a global TV audience, is practically unrecognizable from what it was in its early days.
But one thing has remained the same: Victor Ulloa is still on the roster and one of the team’s most respected leaders despite rarely making headlines.
Ulloa, the 31-year-old Mexican-American midfielder is the only original Inter Miami player who was on the field against LAFC for that historic debut in 2020 and on Sunday night, alongside Messi, as the team extended its unbeaten streak to 11 games with a 3-1 win against the defending MLS champions.
He took a moment to canvas the electric scene at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday night, making note of all the A-list celebrities in the building, and soaked it all in.
“The game Sunday was kind of full circle, having memories from that first game we ever played there back in March 2020 and going in there this time and being able to come on feels nice,” Ulloa said Wednesday morning before training. “All the hard work and sacrifices, all the ups and downs, all the experiences we’ve gone through as a team and as an organization, to walk away with three points and the way we did it feels very, very nice and I look forward to what’s next.”
Ulloa has come off the bench in six of the 12 games since Tata Martino took over as coach after being left off the game roster for several games by former coach Phil Neville. Ulloa is likely to play extended minutes Saturday in the home game against Sporting Kansas City, as Miami will be missing eight players who are on national team duty.
One of Ulloa’s most memorable games was the Leagues Cup final against Nashville SC, which Miami won after a dramatic 11-round penalty kick shootout. He entered the game in the 81st minute and was in position to score the decisive PK, but missed. He buried his head in his hands and was admittedly gutted. Shortly after, he was celebrating the cup with his team.
“Personally, honestly, I was struggling,” Ulloa conceded. “In those moments of high pressure, I went to go score, I missed it. It was a roller coaster of emotions. But Drake [Callender] came through, everyone came through, banged their goals in and to be here from the beginning and then lift the first club trophy was amazing.
“To be able to have the year I’ve had and have the trust from coach and from my teammates, more than anything, to step up and take the decisive kick and be part of the group again has been amazing. This was just another road bump in my career I had to go through. I’ve gone through stuff before, but it was a difficult time. I wasn’t getting rostered, but I never gave up and controlled what I could control.”
“I think what’s kept me around is my leadership in the locker room, the way the guys trust me and how I portray myself, and then on the field, just working hard every day, trying to get better and make others better,” Ulloa said.
Being bilingual has been vital. Ulloa can switch seamlessly between English and Spanish, and is the unofficial translator on the field, at training, in the locker room and in the group text chats.
“Being able to be that bridge between the two languages has helped, especially when we have so many Spanish-speaking guys,” Ulloa said. “I’m glad my parents taught me that and I’m doing the same for my kids because it’s important to speak both languages.”
Former Inter Miami goalkeeper Luis Robles, who is now retired and working at MLS headquarters in New York City, became close friends with Ulloa during their time together on the team.
“Victor is the perfect combination of grit, character and quality; he’s everything an organization could ask for,” Robles said. “You ask him to play forward, he’ll play forward. You ask him to play center back, he’ll play center back. At times, some people may look at that as a negative, but I think what it speaks to is his character. He will do whatever it takes to help the group.”
Robles and Ulloa were neighbors in Parkland and got to know each other well during the COVID quarantine, when the families of Ulloa, Robles, A.J. de la Garza and Lee Nguyen quarantined together. The four players worked out together and their families became close friends.
“Victor is so rare because he’s relatable to everyone; everyone trusts him,” Robles said. “If they need advice, or just need to talk, he’s that guy people seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if even the newcomers on the team right away recognized there is something special about this guy. He seems wise. And everyone respects the way he competes.”
Robles said Ulloa’s grace even in the low points is admirable and rare.
“There’s been some tough stretches for him, when he wasn’t rostered for games, and for him to endure, to continue and consistently be the person and teammate he is speaks volumes,” Robles said. “You don’t find that every day. Not just in soccer. In life.”