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Justin Braun

There are still days when Salt Lake City native Justin Braun has to pinch himself to make sure it all isn't a dream.

Last winter, Braun found himself on the verge of ending his competitive soccer career. Never mind trying to play professional soccer, the former Skyline High star couldn't even find a collegiate program at the time that would give him an opportunity to play at that level.

That all changed, though, when Chivas USA coach Preki discovered Braun at a U.S. Adult Soccer Association tournament last January at the Home Depot Center. One thing led to another, and Braun has since found himself playing — and thriving — in Major League Soccer.

Braun, a Rookie of the Year candidate with Chivas USA, will return to Utah to face his hometown team, Real Salt Lake, on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in the opening round of the MLS Cup playoffs.

With a full MLS regular season now in his rear-view mirror, Braun said that while it's still "kind of unreal," the reality is starting to set in that he's actually become an established player at the highest level of professional soccer in this country.

"It's been a crazy ride for me," he said.

All in all, Braun couldn't be happier to have gone on that ride.

Of the many interesting facets to Braun's story, perhaps the most captivating — and certainly most ironic — part of it all is that MLS legend Preki, now the coach of Chivas USA, spotted something in Braun that dozens of college coaches didn't.

Braun was twice spurned by collegiate coaches — once after he graduated from Skyline in 2005 and again after he graduated from SLCC 2 1/2 years later.

The only offer he received on either occasion came from a Division II school, and after coaches turned him down the second time, he had pretty much determined that his competitive soccer career was finished.

"I'd almost given up on my dream," he said.

That's when something entirely unexpected happened.

When Preki approached him following the tournament game with the Utah State Select Team, Braun initially had no idea who was talking to him.

Then it dawned on him.

"I was pretty much speechless at the time," he said.

Preki offered Braun the chance to join Chivas for its preseason camp and at the end of the second week offered him a contract to play for the Goats.

Braun certainly hasn't let Preki down.

He made 12 starts for Chivas during the regular season (24 appearances), racking up four goals and two assists. More importantly, Braun has become an established player in the league and has received mention as an MLS Rookie of the Year candidate.

And after all that, "Now," he added, "I'm in the MLS playoffs."

What's next for Braun after the season remains to be seen. Braun said that nobody at Chivas USA has spoken with him about his contract, which expires at the end of the season. (That makes sense considering the team is obviously solely focused on the playoffs.)

This much, however, does seem certain: Braun has firmly established himself as an MLS player and will be somewhere in the league next year — likely making more money — which is a huge accomplishment in itself.

"I think I've established myself as a player in this league," he said. "A lot of players come in the league and then are out of it just like that. But I've been able to prove myself."

E-mail: drasmussen@desnews.com