To much local fanfare, Reno native Sean Bieker, 24, signed with Reno 1868 FC last year in the team’s inaugural season. Sierra Living’s Matthew Bieker—aka Sean’s older brother—sits down over lunch with this hometown hero.
Story and Photography by Matthew Bieker
So question No. 1: You’re stronger but I’m smarter, how does that make you feel on a day-to-day basis? [Laughs] Only the strong survive.
How long have you been playing soccer? You started in kindergarten, right? I’d say, yeah, sure, kindergarten. I was 5 or 6 when I started.
How did you decide you wanted to be a keeper? On young teams, everyone has to take a turn playing keeper. Most people don’t like it, some do. I gravitated toward that position: defending. I wanted to save the game more than I wanted to win the game, if that makes sense. I credit tennis for really developing (my skills) because the width of the tennis court is about the width of the goal—and because (of the) quick, explosive bursts of movement. I think that really transferred to being a keeper. I was brave, I was fearless, I wasn’t scared to get hurt. I enjoyed diving and getting dirty. It was almost infectious. Since I was always a little more advanced, I would also be playing up with older kids and they were always a good time to be around. All I’ve ever wanted is to keep playing if it’s fun. If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it.
Was making the switch to high school ball (at Bishop Manogue) memorable? Yeah, because the youth soccer in Reno was a little bit slower—when I was younger I wished I could have played Academy, like most elite players do, but that wasn’t available in Reno then. So going to high school, (as a) 13-year-old kid, now you’re playing with guys that are 17, 18. Where your ability stacks up with them will decide whether you play with them. It was cool, because my freshman and sophomore years, most high schools were really good and we went to state, playing against other teams from the south. Each time I played with someone (at) a higher level, I just wanted to keep playing up. If I’m enjoying it so much at this level, what’s college like? My goal ever since I was a kid was: Be the best player I can possibly be at the highest level I can reach.
I feel like we should talk about your nickname freshman year. No.
What was that name again? No.
You don’t want to talk about that? No.
[Laughs] Regardless, didn’t you win some distinction at Manogue? Yeah, all league goalkeeper—stuff like that. (But) my junior and senior year, Manogue was pretty bad at soccer. We were absolutely terrible. It wasn’t uncommon to lose games 9–0, but I could have 20-plus saves. So I mean, that was always a good exercise. Playing on terrible teams makes you a good goalie.
Let’s talk about your college soccer career. I decided earlier, ‘I know I’m good in this city.’ But there was kind of a big fish, little pond metaphor. I got a good academic scholarship to University of Redlands (a Division III school), but then Colorado Mesa called me. I’d never heard of Grand Junction—it’s on the Western slopes of the Rockies. I signed there the last week of my senior year of high school. I loved Grand Junction—I met some amazing people. And the (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) was a very good (Division II) conference. The level of play was good. I was competing and I was doing well, I loved it, loved the coach. I (just) wanted to know how good I was at the next level. So I (left) Colorado and went to Cal State Fullerton, Division I. I had an athletic scholarship to Mesa, and I walked onto Fullerton and said, ‘Yeah, give me the chance.’ And as a team we had success.
So I interviewed (Reno 1868 FC Coach) Ian Russell a year ago for Sierra Living. Had you heard about the team before I told you about it? Or what was your first exposure to 1868? Yeah, it was about that same time I (also) saw a news clip that said USL is starting a franchise here. And I was just (getting ready to) graduate from Fullerton.
Did you expect to continue to play? I wasn’t sure I was going to continue playing because as everyone knows, it’s not a simple process. It’s a business, and it’s difficult. You need connections, you need agents, you need the stars to align and you need some luck; nothing’s for certain. But I was coming home (anyway), so it was like, ‘Why not?’ Again, (Reno coaches) didn’t know me from Adam. I just said, ‘I’m from here, this is where I played before; give me a week.’ And that’s how it (went). I’d play and they’d say, ‘OK, we’ll see you tomorrow.’ And then eventually I signed toward the end of the year, and then re-signed for this season. It was special to be signed, because it’s home, it’s a hometown club. I came full circle. I worked really hard as a kid to try and leave the city to play with better players, higher talent, and I came back.
Would you say you found a caliber of play that wasn’t here when you left? The caliber wasn’t here when I left. The interest in soccer was here, but not to the magnitude that you see now because this team has really revitalized the community. (They’ve) shown the youth, shown kids tangible goals, especially the team that we had in our first year. We had a lot of success as Golden Boot winners and Rookies of the Year, breaking USL records; that excites kids. So that was special to be a part of. I want kids to work harder for youth soccer and I want to see more kids want to play college soccer here.
You made the rounds on local media after you got signed, and technically you’re doing it again with me—what’s that reaction been like, as a local kid who came home to play? Coming home and being a part of this team that has been exciting the community, really lighting a fire, it’s special to be a part of. But I wasn’t the only local player. So it’s nice to see local players being considered for this team for more than just being local—because the city does have talent.
What’s your attitude toward the organization as a whole? The organization is professional; the front office is great. They’re all really friendly and they look after the players. We’re fortunate to have a lot of returning players from the successful team that we had last year, and obviously the goal for this year is to win championships—to try and top the success we had last year. It takes hard work, but again we have a special group of guys, not just on the field but off the field. It’s a good locker room to be a part of. Some of my fondest memories are not the winning or losing, but training with good guys. Because when you’re old, I think you’ll remember the personalities you played with rather than the scorecard.
I like that. Well, Mom, Dad and I will be watching from our usual seats this season, along with a few thousand others. Thanks for letting me buy you lunch. You’re welcome.