Orlando City players spark creativity at local barbershop

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In the early minutes of a June training session, the latest haircut of star Júnior Urso stole the attention of every Orlando City player on the pitch.

The new look — buzzed short and bleached blond with slight waves — sparked debate. Robin Jansson loved it. Silvester van der Water said his teammate looked like a ninja. Both Joey DeZart and Brandon Austin compared the style to rapper Chris Brown.

Mason Stajduhar wasn’t as sure about it, comparing the cut to Lego hair. João Moutinho teased him for looking “straight out of the favelas.

Even coach Oscar Pareja weighed in, smoothing his hand over the freshly cut hair and telling Urso it looked beautiful.

“I like it much better with the yellow and with the haircut,” Pareja said. “He looks lighter, faster.”

The proof came on the pitch for Urso, who scored a game-winning goal in his first outing as a blond. After the match, the midfielder felt more confident than ever in his new look.

“It gave me some luck,” Urso said. “I will keep this hair for a long time, I think.”

A haircut is more than just an afternoon errand for Urso — it’s integral to his identity.

The midfielder’s hair birthed his nickname in childhood when a youth coach first called him urso — which means ‘bear’ in Portuguese — after the fluffy mop of curls piled atop his head. That name defined Urso ever since, molding his goal-scoring celebration and his sense of self on and off the pitch.

Before the big cut in June, Urso had worn his hair in braids for nearly eight years. For the midfielder, the change was a major step that required the most trusted hands — barber Ricardo Chavez at Revamp Barbershop.

Over the past four years, Chavez and his barbershop have become a behind-the-scenes staple of Orlando City.

Former designated player Dom Dwyer was the first player to walk into Revamp when he returned to Orlando in 2017. Back then, Chavez didn’t follow sports at all, so Dwyer was just another customer. But as the pair struck up a deeper relationship, Dwyer began to refer more of his teammates to the barbershop.

Since then, the clientele at Revamp has included a steady flow of Lions such as Urso, Luis Nani, Daryl Dike, Pedro Gallese and Andrés Perea.

For Chavez, the key to his relationship with Orlando City rests on making each player feel his best.

“I think that as men, we’re not very open about sharing how we feel about it, but it’s definitely there,” Chavez said. “The ‘look good, feel good’ mentality is 100% there. You’ll see it in their clothes, you’ll see it in their car, you’ll see it in their haircuts, the jewelry, all the way they still do it up. They definitely know that when you look good, you feel good, and you perform at a different level.”

After cutting the hair of starters and rookies alike for several years, Chavez says he always feels dialed into what’s next for the club.

When young star Dike first came to Revamp, for instance, Dwyer immediately pointed him out to Chavez, telling him to not be fooled by the rookie’s quiet demeanor.

“That kid’s going to be something to watch,” he said.

Even after the striker’s breakout year catapulted him to the top of American soccer fame, Dike doesn’t get the star treatment at Revamp. Instead, he’s greeted with the nickname “Tree Trunks,” a teasing poke at his brawny thighs, which have cramped up spectacularly in the middle of several appointments.

Chavez often cuts players’ hair in his personal studio, which is tucked into the back of the shop for increased privacy. Before the pandemic, the club also invited him to bring gear and a few barbers to Exploria Stadium to cut players’ hair at work.

But even when they get their hair cut in the main studio, Chavez says the Lions blend right into the typical bustle of the barbershop, cutting up jokes with fellow patrons. This sense of normalcy is a priority for Chavez.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily so much about the quality of the haircut, right?” Chavez said. “It’s the experience. They’re able to come in and just feel somewhat at home, to feel what they find and define as normal.”

Ten minutes into a braiding session at Loft 9 studio in Maitland, Orlando City rookie Rio Hope-Gund sinks deep into his seat.

The defender’s eyes flutter close contentedly as Alicia Valdez winds three strands of his hair together, balancing a glob of Shine ‘n Jam gel on her wrist and a metal pick in her palm. Her nails are painted Orlando City purple and filed down into oval shapes on the pointer and middle finger, maximizing her dexterity as she weaves Hope-Gund’s hair into tight, shiny braids.

“I trust Alicia with my hair more than anybody,” Hope-Gund said. “I’m a very loyal person to a barber or a braider. I don’t think I’d ever go to somebody else.”

Valdez is the other half of styling the hair of Orlando City players. Four years ago, braiding was simply her hobby until Chavez gave her the opportunity to take her passion to the next level at Revamp.

After taking professional classes in Atlanta, Valdez found the quality of her braids began to stand out. That’s also when she began to work with top Orlando City stars such as Dwyer and Urso.

Although the barbershop is a space often dominated by men, Valdez said the Revamp environment empowered her to invest in her craft.

“They were definitely something that at time in my life, I needed that,” Valdez said. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Being in that shop is something that money could never buy.”

Braids have been an important step in the transition to professional life for Hope-Gund. The rookie played around with different hairstyles growing — from locs to a mohawk — but never attempted braids until he moved to Orlando.

The protective style is more convenient for Hope-Gund, allowing a distinctive look that doesn’t require too much maintenance through deep conditioning. After Urso recommended him to Valdez, the rookie settled on the Nipsey Hussle style as his regular look, a set of four straight back braids popularized by the late rapper.

Valdez stands out to the players, Hope-Gund says, because of her unique style — her touch is light to avoid the scalp pain often associated with African braiding while her use of stitching creates sharp definition.

After an hour-long session, the rookie said he can feel his confidence sky-rocket.

“When I look at myself in the mirror, I just feel fast,” Hope-Gund said.

Last summer, Chavez faced two problems.

The first was universal — the pandemic, which slowed his business to a handful of regulars open to home visits.

The second was a bit more unique — Gallese was trying to take his job.

When Orlando City first prepared to enter the MLS is Back bubble, longtime clients such as Urso and Gallese lobbied for Chavez to be included in the team’s travel party.

When MLS ultimately denied team requests for add-on staff members like barbers, the players were worried — they were about to go on national television for a month without a haircut.

Ultimately, Gallese was the one to pick up the clippers. He watched YouTube videos and came to Chavez for advice. The barber kept the lessons simple — how to set the guards on his clippers, how to use a comb effectively — and advised the keeper to take his time.

Gallese called Chavez from the bubble, asking for his advice and reviews of cuts on teammates such as Santiago Patiño.

“Is this right?” he’d ask, showing Chavez different angles of his teammates’ heads. “This look OK?”

When the team left the bubble, Chavez joked that Gallese might take his place as the Lions’ No. 1 barber. But although the keeper continues to cut hair for fun, the players were eager to get back into Chavez’s chair.

Urso and the Gallese both hired Chavez and Valdez for weekly home visits, a rare exception to both families’ stringent social-distancing guidelines.

“The fact that they were able to open up their doors with their homes for me was a humbling experience,” Chavez said. “I was very honored to be able to share that time with them in the intimacy of their home.”

As pandemic restrictions continued to loosen throughout MLS and Florida, players were able to return to Revamp for their cuts.

That’s allowed more collaboration for Chavez with players such as Urso eager to experiment with bolder cuts. The midfielder has more plans for the future — trying purple dye, cutting a bear outline or a smiley face into his hair.

In the meantime, the bleach trend has begun to catch on with the Lions. Hope-Gund said he wants to cut his hair short to mimic rapper Frank Ocean’s bleach dye look in the future, and forward Benji Michel said he also might attempt the blond look.

“But listen,” Michel warned. “If you guys see me bald, that means I didn’t like it.”

The constant flow of Orlando City players has changed life for both Chavez and Valdez. The past four years transformed them from apathetic sports viewers to full-on football fans.

When she first started braiding Dwyer’s hair, Valdez didn’t know a single rule of soccer. Now she regularly attends matches, most recently cheering on Jamaica in the Concacaf Gold Cup after braiding hair for several Reggae Boyz starters.

The relationship also bolstered both of their businesses, even during the economic downturn of the pandemic.

After three years at the barbershop, Valdez opened her own braiding studio in April at the Salon Lofts. Although she continues to collaborate with Revamp regularly, the venture allowed her to build her own brand.

“Honestly, I never thought I was going to have this opportunity,” Valdez said. “In that moment, they step out there on the field and they can’t wait for people to see their braids. It gives them that boost of confidence in the game. To be part of that moment, it’s something I can’t even explain.”

Chavez opened Revamp in 2014 and Dwyer first sat in his chair three years later. Since then, he’s moved to a larger studio, hired a full staff of professional barbers and prepared to open a second location by the University of Central Florida.

But for Chavez, individual relationships with Orlando City players mean more than his business advancement.

Each week, he spends hours with some of the top talents in the country, sharing jokes and advice and stories. That experience has shaped Chavez — and, he hopes, also given players another place in Orlando to call home.

“That’s what a barber is really meant to do,” Chavez said. “From the beginning — it’s cool to cut the hair, it’s cool to have that experience. But building a relationship with them, that’s something that’s going to last an eternity.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Julia Poe at jpoe@orlandosentinel.com.

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