A dream come true

Santos suits up for Portuguese national team

Naugatuck’s Steph Santos, a junior midfielder at the University of Hartford, played for the Portuguese national women’s soccer team at the 21st Algarve Cup Tournament earlier this month in Portugal. –CONTRIBUTED

Naugatuck’s Steph Santos, a junior midfielder at the University of Hartford, played for the Portuguese national women’s soccer team at the 21st Algarve Cup Tournament earlier this month in Portugal. –CONTRIBUTED

There is no greater honor for an athlete than to play for the country of his or her heritage. Naugatuck’s Steph Santos lived out a dream come true when she played for the Portuguese national women’s soccer team earlier this month at the 21st Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal.

Santos, the former Naugatuck girls soccer player who helped the Greyhounds to three NVL titles, has been attracting a lot of attention on the college circuit. The University of Hartford junior midfielder was named Co-Midfielder of the Year in the America East Conference, and she was named to the All-America East Conference and All-New England first team after leading the conference and the Hawks in assists with seven.

Santos added a goal and an assist in the America East tournament and was third on the team with 10 points in her first season with the University of Hartford. The junior midfielder transferred after two years at Southern Connecticut State University after playing in 36 games.

“Having earned the accolades from the season definitely helped my confidence in a way that made me really believe in myself and my abilities,” Santos said.

The Naugatuck soccer star has always dreamed of playing for Portugal and Hartford head coach John Natale was a big influence in making that happen. Natale, a former member of the US women’s national team’s coaching staff, helped Santos reach out to the Portuguese team.

“The help from Coach Natale didn’t start by contacting the Portuguese team,” Santos said. “It began the moment I got to Hartford. In just one season I have already learned so much from him and he has truly been a huge influence in my success.”

The 12-team invitational tournament began March 5 and concluded March 12 and featured teams from the United States, China, Germany, Japan, Russia and Sweden along with Denmark, Austria, North Korea, Iceland, Norway and Portugal.

“It was such an honor to have the opportunity to represent Portugal,” Santos said. “It’s been a dream of mine to play for them ever since I was a little girl. My parents, Abilio and Cina, along with two of my cousins were able to make the trip, which was great to have my biggest support system there with me.”

Each team had a maximum roster of 23 players and tournament rules allowed teams to only make six substitutions per game. Santos was just one of two players on the Portugal roster that came from the United States. Defensive backfield Monica Mendes of the University of Texas was the other player.

“The international level of competition is high intensity, extremely fast, technical and very physical,” Santos said. “The days were all planned out, organized with an itinerary for what each day consisted of. We had several training sessions and it was a real professional environment.”

Portugal played in Group C and won the first game of the tournament played at Belavista Stadium in Parchal, Portugal, by defeating Austria 3-2 on March 5. Two days later Santos got to see her first action in a 3-1 loss to Russia.

Needing a victory to play in the medal round, Portugal came up on the short end of a 2-0 final margin at Estadio Algarve Stadium in Faro, Portugal, on March 10.  On the final day of the tournament, Portugal dropped a tough 2-1 decision to Austria.

But just because the tournament ended for Santos didn’t mean her experience was finished.

“Once the tournament was over I was able to drive to my dad’s hometown with him and visit my grandparents for the day,” Santos said.

With still another season left to play at Hartford, Santos’ experience in Portugal might just be the first of many in her family’s home country.

“I think this experience opens the possibility of going back to play in Portugal,” Santos said. “They know who I am and have seen me play and interact with the other players. I’m still young and have room to improve on my weaknesses and perfect my strengths. I will continue to work hard and get better with the hope of getting another opportunity like this.”

But first, she’ll get one more collegiate season this fall with the Hawks.

“This experience has definitely prepared me for my senior season because I see clearly where I am and where I want to be,” Santos said. “I have never been more motivated to improve and make the most of every opportunity I have on the field.”