Between Salinas and Watsón The unfairness of “pay-to-play” hits talented, working-class soccer players the most. But ultimately, it’s robbing U.S. soccer of its full potential.

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By Nate Abaurrea

It was February of 2016 as I cruised the old ‘Vo around my hometown of Watsonville. Off in the distance, I could see the lights of Geiser Field on the campus of Watsonville High, my alma mater, where our entering freshman class of 550 turned four years later to a graduating class of 250, with just 32 of those students going on to attend four-year universities.

In an act of nostalgic affection, I decided to stop by the stadium for what I soon discovered was a brilliant high school soccer match-up between the Grizzlies of Pajaro Valley (who still have to use their crosstown rival’s stadium for home matches despite being founded in 2007) and the Alisal Trojans of East Salinas, a program known all around the area as “el nido de fútbol”.

It was Senior Night, and the soccer on display that evening was some of the best I’ve ever seen at the U-18 level.

I was just coming off my own high school coaching season back up in Redding, where for three months I got to watch and work with some of the top young soccer talents in the North State, almost all of whom played club ball and came from relatively privileged backgrounds.

I mean no disrespect to any of my former players, or those we battled against (including the Pleasant Valley Vikings of Chico and their incredible 101-match unbeaten run, a California state record), but after ten minutes of Pajaro Valley v. Alisal, back on the Central Coast, my brain was shaken and my heart was warmed.

The pace of the game had me feeling like I’d been training and watching soccer in quicksand back up north. The technical skill, the calculated runs, the stiff challenges, the soccer IQs on display from both teams put most everyone else to shame.

During the Senior Night announcements before the opening whistle, almost every player on both sides said that they were bound for a job or a local junior college.

A few players had gotten into more accessible California State Universities like San José and CSUMB. I also learned that night that one former Alisal player and assistant coach, Dany Pulido, was bound for San Luis Obispo to suit up for Cal Poly on a full scholarship, after a year plying his trade at Hartnell Community College in Salinas, post high school graduation.

Some seniors had no plans. Some of them knew they might not graduate. Some said they would keep playing, or go into coaching. Others knew that they might end up leaving the game they love, simply because they had to focus on other more pressing matters in their respective personal situations.

I thought about how some of those boys, as talented as they were in their own arena, would not have lasted five minutes on that Geiser Field turf that night. There was a different mentality in play here.

I kept thinking about all this as I watched the match, these all-too-common realities that one might never understand unless they’ve lived in these neighborhoods, attended these schools, walked these streets, and seen firsthand what poverty, a lack of self-worth or purpose, drugs, gang violence, and your not-so-average day-to-day struggles can all do to derail promising young lives.

As was customary growing up, I looked around and saw that I was the only Anglo in a crowd of about a hundred Mexican-Americans on a cool Thursday night in The Ville. I started thinking about all the connections those players back up north had, access to elite coaching and training resources, and more importantly legitimate pipelines to NCAA programs and U.S. Soccer

development academies. I thought about how some of those boys, as talented as they were in their own arena, would not have lasted five minutes on that Geiser Field turf that night. There was a different mentality in play here.

My whole soccer life started flashing before me, these two separate footballing worlds I’d come to know and how they both related to the professional game that I covered for a living.

The match was somehow getting better, thus I was getting angrier.

“Why should THESE boys, with the talent and dedication they have, not have the same opportunities,” I asked myself.

“Cuz it’s Salas & Watsón,” the pixie on my shoulder answered as he laughed cynically and took a pull of his pisto.

I was back in my world, my home, and it felt both invigorating and heartbreaking.

It’s hard to properly articulate just how comparatively good this Alisal team was.

They weren’t perfect. They’d narrowly lost a couple non-league matches earlier in the season, both away from home to a pair of Bay Area private school powerhouses, De La Salle and Bellarmine. (My Watsonville Wildcatz also took a point in a 1–1 draw. Well done, lads.)

It wasn’t about records or win streaks that night. It was about watching the actual footy being played. The sheer individual talent was wonderful, along with the collective desire, camaraderie and enthusiasm coming from the touchline and young men on the bench, anxious to get a taste of the evening’s action.

Good Lord. It was like a professional culture in many ways, the palpable sense of pride they took in wearing the Alisal crest. It was absolutely glorious to see.

The P.V. Boys were no slouches either, the Green Grizzlies of The Ville with plenty of fine moments of their own in a truly enjoyable night’s soccer for the neutral observer, the match ultimately ending 2–2 with a wild finish. It was just good stuff, 80 minutes of quality from every player on the pitch.

I remember leaving the ground that night wondering what I could do to help, what I could to bring about change.

I wanted to find ways in which I could use my platform to shed light on issues that have mattered to me since I was a child, a child who connected more with most of the Mexican-American kids and families around me because I could relate to them on certain financial and social levels that most Santa Cruz County and Monterey Bay Area white folk had no interest in ever understanding. It’s a cultural and human connection for which I’m immensely grateful, and one that helps me to this day in my professional career. And there is still so much to learn.

In the two and a half years since that night, hundreds of quality articles have been written on these issues, including the lack of care U.S. Soccer has shown for the Latino population of this country, the cultural disconnect between U.S. Soccer and minority communities, and the overarching classism of the pay-to-play youth soccer system that leads to an almost complete lack of care for poor people of all creeds and colors in this country.

This includes kids like me who were never going to become professionals but also never got the chance to play any competitive club soccer because the few thousand dollars needed annually was simply beyond the price range of my two single parents.

This also includes, much more pertinently, most of those young men from Alisal and Pajaro Valley (and Watsonville High), and most of the Latino-American population in these United States for that matter, potential professional soccer players who remain in the permanent shadows despite working their asses off for years and having so much talent to offer.

This journalistic movement is a good thing, and many of the necessary issues are finally being raised by more than just a few concerned citizens. Meaningful dialogues are being created. It’s a start.

But just one month after his team MISSED THE WORLD CUP, former United States Men’s National Team head coach Bruce Arena said, verbatim, on national television during halftime of a Portugal vs. U.S. friendly, “players DON’T slip through the cracks in U.S. Soccer.”Around the same time, Sunil Gulati likened “pay-to-play” to “piano lessons.”

Back in September, a brilliant article from Lauren Hepler and Lilian Michelena was published in the L.A. Times, titled “U.S. losing soccer prospects as California talent heads back to Mexico in search of opportunity.”(Link)

The story is built around Alisal High School and the city of Salinas, particularly the notorious East Side, illustrating what soccer means to the local community and why so many dedicated players struggle to find the opportunities they so often deserve.

A core of the piece is young Dany Pulido, the one-time Alisal star who has recently ventured to Mexico to fight for a top-flight professional contract with Queretaro. Dany never got to play for Cal Poly. There was an academic discrepancy from Hartnell. He never got to follow through on the full-ride college scholarship. He has regrets, but he also has another chance, and it’s coming south of the border. Pulido is one of three former Alisal players in 2018 to venture to Mexico to play professionally.

In the wake of the Jonathan González saga (a 19-year-old Rayados de Monterrey midfielder who grew up in Santa Rosa and played for almost every U.S. youth national team before successfully switching allegiances to Mexico in a FIFA-approved “one-time” move in January 2018, the player having never made his senior international debut with the U.S. which would have prevented the move altogether, González instead making his El Tri senior-team debut soon after becoming an eligible part of the Mexican player pool, the whole story very much representing the organizational oversight and cultural disconnect of U.S. Soccer) and as people with significant professional platforms are finally realizing and spotlighting the competitive shortcomings (let alone the social consequences) that come as a result of such a classist and often xenophobic system of player development, articles like the ones that have recently been published in the L.A. Times, The Guardian, and other major news outlets are becoming more and more useful, and quite powerful.

Until people in actual positions of power in and around U.S. Soccer take the time to listen to people who want our soccer culture to mirror the diversity that makes our country beautiful, we’ll stay repeating the same old sh** from the same old rooftops.

Groups of people who never wanted to give these thoughts and ideas the time of day are at least coming to lend an ear, read an article, throw a retweet or two, and maybe even learn something. Again, this is a good thing.

There is a movement of multicultural enlightenment that currently exists in the U.S. soccer landscape, and with it a growing understanding of the byproducts of classism and aversive racism in our footballing culture.

However, until people in actual positions of power in and around U.S. Soccer acknowledge the mere existence of these problems, these vital issues, and then take the time to listen to people who want to see our national team succeed on the global stage, people with a “for the next generation” mindset, people simply asking for equal opportunity, people who want our soccer culture to mirror the diversity that makes our country beautiful… until then… we’ll stay repeating the same old sh** from the same old rooftops.

Cheers to Lauren Hepler and Lilian Michelena, and to the person who guided me to their article on Alisal, the indomitable Tom Marshall, one of the catalysts of the #LigaMXeng movement (on Twitter @mexicoworldcup).

And cheers to Mark Cisneros, teacher and head boys soccer coach at Alisal, who had no qualms in that article in expressing the brutal honesty that is sometimes necessary to enact positive change.

“Around here, there’s two ways to prove you’re a man,” Cisneros said. “Soccer or gangbanging.”

That quote hit hard. It’s real.

These stories are real. The talent is real. The passion is real. And despite what Bruce, Sunil, and anybody else loyal to the establishment might tell you, the countless potentially top-level players from Salinas, Watsonville, etc. lost to gangs, violence, or just a lack of opportunity are oh so real.

We simply cannot wait around anymore for change to come. As we push for national reform, we must also be sure to support and scout our own local soccer communities, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, doing the jobs the “elite” have continually refused.

For every diamond in the rough, these exceptions to the rule who make it out of their own ghetto, barrio, or trailer park, there are thousands more who we will never know. Let’s change that. Together.

Saludos a todos.

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Nate Abaurrea

About Nate Abaurrea

Hailing from Watsonville, California, Nate Abaurrea is a writer and broadcaster specializing in coverage of soccer on both sides of the USA-Mexico border. He also loves wine. And tacos.