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For Salvador and Azucena "Susie" Bernal, the UNLV soccer teams' brother-sister act, the game has always been a family affair.
Sal's a sophomore forward on the men's team; Susie, a freshman, plays wing on the women's team. As they talk about their success on the pitch and in their academic careers, they keep circling back to their inspirations: their parents.
The Bernals picked up their father's love of soccer. How old were you when you took up the game? "Three or four," they say in unison, glancing at each other.
Sal picks up the story: "I was the one who started playing first. I was the boy, so my dad wanted me to start playing. In Mexico it's a big thing to play soccer. But she was the one who played first on an actual team."
Both were born in the central Mexican city of Morelia. Their family moved between Mexico and the United States — including Denver, where they have extended family — a couple of times before the opportunities Las Vegas offers drew the family here.
Salvador Bernal Sr. and his wife, Rosa, both work in the Las Vegas service industry. Sal and Susie talk a lot about their parents' sacrifices: rides to and from practice after long workdays and money for equipment, for joining the competitive club teams, and for many trips to tournaments.
The siblings are both graduates of Clark High School in Las Vegas. In his senior year, Sal set a school record for goals in a season while leading the Clark Chargers to the state semifinals. When it came time to consider college, the choice was easy.
"I wanted to stay home. UNLV was always my first option," Sal says. "This is where I wanted to be."
Last year he was the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation newcomer of the year. This year he's continuing with standout performances. He had two goals and two assists in mid-October wins over Seattle and league-leading San Jose State — the team's first back-to-back road conference wins since 2003.
Like her brother, Susie stood out in high school. Her Las Vegas club team, Neusport FC, won state titles in 2008 and 2010. She followed Sal to UNLV because family is important: "My parents said, ‘Since we're here in town; we want you to stay here.'"
She is a key player on a women's team that set a school record with a nine-game unbeaten streak earlier this season. One of those games was a 2-1 win over Oklahoma, a game that featured Susie's first goal as a collegiate.
"People are starting to realize that we (the women's team) are good," Susie says. "We're proving that we can do it. (Breaking the record) got people's attention."
The women's team recently returned to the national rankings — they're No. 9, one spot short of their best ever, four years ago. Susie says the coaches caution players against letting success go to their heads. "We usually hear a lot about it from social media," she says. "(Coaches) will mention it, but they don't want us to get cocky, and they tell us to stay humble."
As important as soccer is to the whole family, it's not everything. "Of course I want to be a professional soccer player," Sal says. He'd like to rise to the level of his favorite player, Lionel Messi, leader of the powerful Barcelona team in Spain's top league. "But if that doesn't work, I want to have something to fall back on to support my family."
His family's influence and Las Vegas upbringing factor into his major, hotel administration. Sal devotes about 20 hours a week to soccer and more time to studying. There's little time for much else — but then, he's not sure what else there is besides school and soccer. "I just don't do that much outside of soccer," he says. "I mean, I like to go out, have fun, but soccer's always been that part of my life. I've traveled a lot, met many people because of soccer."
Susie, who has not declared a major yet, lives on campus to help balance her athletic and academic responsibilities. "I don't have anything outside of school or soccer," she says. Trying to keep her team on top while keeping up her studies can be stressful, she says. But once again she echoes her brother: "I want to graduate. I want to get a job I enjoy going to so I can help my family out, and have my parents not work so much. They've already done so much for us."
Sal emphasizes the point: "Without them we would probably not be here."