For Alaska's first-ever Homegrown Player, Sulte knows he needs to keep working

Hunter Sulte, Timbers vs. Minnesota, 2.19.20

“I just remember the first time I met Reese.”

This is Hunter Sulte’s professional origin story. Reese is Steve Reese, the current goalkeeping coach for the Portland Timbers’ Academy. It’s four-and-a-half years ago, when Sulte’s only 13 years old.

“It was at the Alaska Dome,” the Anchorage native remembers, “which is where we played in the winter because of the snow. For three days, [Reese] came and coached our [Olympic Development Program] session, and after three days, he [said], 'I want you to come down and join Portland.'”

Then came the proof it was all real.

“He gave me two free pairs of [goalkeeper] gloves,” Sulte remembers. There’s a laugh behind his tone, remembering the gloves as the most impressive part to this 13-year-old self. “That was pretty awesome, because I'd never had an actual good pair of gloves.”

Sulte looks like a goalkeeper now, and not just a goalkeeper prospect. At 18, he looks like a pro. He’s six-foot-seven, and he carries himself with the ease of someone who’s made length his virtue.

Back in Alaska, it was a little different. He was at least five inches shorter, though his dimensions said he would grow. He was talented – talent enough to earn that quick invite – but raw. Sulte was 13 years old and not the type of soccer lifer you’d put on a professional track. The Sultes weren’t a soccer family; hence the memories of Reese’s gloves.

“I went home and I was like, 'Mom, you won't believe what happened,’” he says. “‘I was just invited to join the Timbers Academy.' She was like, 'What?' ...

“My Mom never really wanted to be a soccer mom. That's why she didn't let me play soccer for the longest time. She thought it was a scam at first. But then I had her talk to Reese, and I believe within two months, I left for Portland. It was the spring break of my seventh-grade year.”

Today, the leap the Sultes made in early 2016 has fully paid off. As announced by the Timbers, Hunter is Portland’s latest Homegrown Player, having signed a professional deal that makes him the first Alaskan HGP.

“Hunter is a talented player whose commitment and dedication to the sport has been rewarded,” Gavin Wilkinson, Portland’s general manager, said in the team’s announcement, with head coach Giovanni Savarese adding, “[the Timbers] feel that this the best move for him to continue to develop and are invested in Hunter as a player.”

He likens himself to Jake Leeker, his co-starter this season with the club’s United Soccer League team, Timbers 2. Most of that parallel is about the physical profile, though. When he thinks about other comparisons to his new teammates, he thinks about the mental elements of the game he’s learned from Steve Clark, or how Aljaz Ivacic has helped him get his length into dives along the ground.

“[Portland’s goalkeepers] all bring different things to the equation,” Sulte says. Having trained with the team in Costa Rica this preseason, Sulte already knows them well. “Each brings something new that they've learned from their career.”

Physically, there are no questions about Sulte. He looks like the 18-year-old goalkeeper you’d draw up. During training, too, there are few questions; at least, there are few questions about his commitment. He’s eager and curious, and he’s progressing quickly. Two years ago, Sulte was competing with another goalkeeper, Kashope Oladapo, for time in the Academy team. Since then, he’s grown, both in size and results.

“I believe it was our [U-17s] year,” he remembered. “We'd be competing for the starting spot. He'd play three, four games, and then he'd have one bad game. Then I'd been in three, four games, and I'd have a bad game. We just kept going back and forth, competing for that one spot.”

That development has had a relatively steady course during Sulte’s time in Portland. In 2018, after his initial years in the Academy, a 16-year-old Sulte made his first gameday squads for T2. The next year, he was in that team a little more often, and last season he got his first professional minutes. Sulte started eight of the team’s 16 games in 2020.

Paralleling the on-field growth has been Sulte’s growth off. Since moving south near his 14th birthday, Sulte’s has been a “lone ranger,” as he describes it. He’s had family close, but for much of his teens, he’s had to grow up on his own, fighting through the costs of relocating so far from home.

“I used to, everyday, ride from the apartment I used to live in to my middle school, which was I'd say maybe a mile or two,” he remembers of his early days in Portland. “I’d be in school, and then I'd bike to the facility, which is another mile, two miles. And then after that, my mom would pick me up, or then sometimes, I'd just bike back home.”

This is the life you choose when you opt for the professional path. New responsibilities become a full-time job, and while you may still go to school with other kids, you don’t get the after-school or weekend perks. Instead, you’re putting in time at training, in scrimmages, or playing games. You’re in vans going to Academy matches, or showcases. Instead of time with friends, you have offsets. For your adult life you’re being challenged with adult commitment: commitments that, occasionally, make you question what you’ve given up.

“There were times I wanted to quit; times I finished training where I was crying,” he remembered. This was not only during his first years in Portland but well after he’d settled, when the contrast between his new life and his sacrifices became clearer.

“It was hard because I'm seeing all my friends, and I was always putting myself in their [shoes],” he shared. “They aren't going to sleep thinking they have practice the next morning, having to get up and train. They just don’t have that stress. The next day, they wake up, do their school, have nothing else for the rest of the day.”

“But I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I don't see myself working at a desk. I see myself doing something I love.’ That's basically it.”

If that sacrifice was the first major choice in Sulte’s story, the second major choice came more recently, and was about how his path would continue. Before being offered his Homegrown course, Sulte was offered a place with the current national collegiate champions, Georgetown University. Before he could fast-track his pro path, Sulte was college-bound.

“I committed to Georgetown, and I had a scholarship there,” he explained. “[My family and I] were happy with the scholarship. It was one of my dream schools, and when I went on campus, it felt right. This was a school I wanted to go to.”

“They just won the championship, and their school has produced a lot of professional goalies. That's another reason I wanted to go there.”

The choice to turn down Georgetown “really hard for my family,” Sulte admits. Ultimately, though, the decision came down to the same priorities the Sultes accepted four years ago.

“I could have gotten a great education from Georgetown, or I could achieve my dream and try to become pro quicker than others: to develop more,” he says. “For me and my family, this was the overall decision: They're both good, but the reason I moved down here from Alaska – yeah, going to a good school was part of it, but the main reason was to try and sign a Homegrown [deal] with the Timbers, eventually try and make my way over to Europe, and to play for the national team. I wanted to develop first with the Timbers and play with the Timbers for as long as I could.”

With today’s news, Sulte has reached its next step, moving further from bike rides to Academy night sessions to the spot his 13-year-old self dreamed of. Sulte is now a Timber, with no qualifications. Every choice, every decision in the face of doubt, has led to this moment.

“The biggest thing I want people to know is that all the hard work that I've put in without being seen, it pays off,” he says. “I never knew that me biking those miles every day to training and school would lead to this … I've always just put my head down and kept working. It just proves that my hard work pays off, and I need to keep going.”