During his first year in Sounders Academy, U-17 midfielder Chris Hegardt has reached milestones on the pitch that most kids can only dream of.
A technical, tenacious box-to-box midfielder, Hegardt was an integral component of the Sounders U-17 team that became the first-ever MLS side to win the prestigious Generation adidas Cup Champions Division. He helped lock down a midfield that defeated international powerhouses like Flamengo, C.F. Valencia, River Plate and West Ham United.
“When I first came to Seattle, it was different because every player is super good,” said Hegardt, who will play with the U-19 Academy team for the 2019-20 season. “I think Generation adidas Cup was a big stepping-stone for me. I thought I played really well in that tournament and I kind of broke through. After that, I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities to train with the Tacoma Defiance and the First Team.”
Hegardt put in a man-of-the-match performance against River Plate, assisting the game-winning goal | Matthew Stith
To make it as a professional player, prospects have to possess a strong character and be willing to embrace adversity. At 17 years old, Hegardt has already overcome more hardship than most people experience in a lifetime.
In more ways than one, soccer saved Hegardt’s life.
On Dec. 5, 2009, seven-year-old Chris was playing in a tournament with his local team, the Fallbrook Fury. The ball popped up and struck him in the stomach. He got sick on the sidelines, so his parents took him to the local ER, where they discovered that the ball had ruptured a tumor in his liver, necessitating emergency surgery.
“You should always show your best on the field and train your hardest because you never know when it will be your last session or last game. You have to be grateful and appreciate it.”
A biopsy revealed he had malignant cancer covering a third of his liver. Just hours after playing soccer with his teammates, Chris was suddenly in a battle to stay alive.
“He’s had to go through things in life that you hope and pray no child has to endure,” said Defiance Head Coach and Sounders Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little. “He’s had to come through this adversity and a terrible cancer. He has a strength and resiliency that I can’t comprehend. Those are special, special qualities… I have nothing but admiration for him.”
Hegardt had to persevere through three rounds of chemotherapy, a liver transplant and then three additional rounds of chemo.
“[Cancer] humbles you a lot,” he said. “It makes you grateful. Now that I’m able to play the game without health concerns, it’s made me a stronger person.
During all the nausea, aches, pains, surgeries and daily anti-rejection medications, the prospect of returning to the pitch and helping his teammates was the light at the end of the tunnel for Chris.
“Through all of my treatments, my mind was always on getting back to soccer,” he said. “That helped in everything I went through because I always focused on soccer. It pushed my mind to be strong and never give up. No matter how sick I got, I just had to keep going. I set a goal to get back on the field.”
Thankfully, he had his parents and three older siblings constantly by his side, cheering him up and rooting for him along the way.
Hegardt walks down the red carpet at CenturyLink Field in honor of the U-17s winning GA Cup | Charis Wilson
“They were always there for me,” recalled Hegardt. “My parents were very helpful. It was very good to have them super close to me. I’m so thankful for that.
“There were a lot of times that were hard. During the rounds of chemo, any meal I ate, I would throw it up. Having my siblings around helped because they helped me stay positive.”
In his first year back after beating cancer, Hegardt’s San Diego Surf team made it to the national championship game in 2011. Finally, the moment he had been dreaming about had arrived.
Hegardt scored the game-winning PK to secure the national title for his team.
Hegardt playing for San Diego Surf after completing treatment | Photos provided by Chris Hegardt
“It taught me to not take anything for granted,” he said. “You should always show your best on the field and train your hardest because you never know when it will be your last session or last game. You have to be grateful and appreciate it.”
Hegardt’s relationship with soccer is much deeper and more profound than most kids his age. You can see it in every match he plays for the Academy.
When he had to square off against some of the top young players in the world at GA Cup, he never backed down. He fought and clawed with unparalleled intensity for every loose ball, rallying his teammates to keep pushing through any adversity that came their way.
Hegardt in the GA Cup final (left) and celebrating the win with the U-17s (right) | Tim Heitman
“[Cancer] humbles you a lot,” he said. “It makes you grateful. Now that I’m able to play the game without health concerns, it’s made me a stronger person. The things I went through made me a better person. It taught me to fight and to never give up. If you always give your best in training, it will take you a long way.”
On Aug. 9, he made his first professional appearance, coming on as a substitute in the Defiance’s 2-1 win over Orange County SC in the USL Championship. In recent months, he has trained with the Sounders FC First Team, learning from the likes of Cristian Roldan and Nicolás Lodeiro.
Hegardt celebrates after his Defiance debut | Charis Wilson
“He eats, breathes and sleeps soccer,” said Little. “He’s a great kid. He would play soccer all the time if he could. He loves talking about it, loves feedback and loves watching it. That character, mentality and passion for the game can make a big difference. We think Chris has a bright future.”
Hegardt dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. And he has the necessary talent and passion for the game.
As for the work ethic and character to cut at the highest level? Don’t bet against him.