Roberto Castaneda’s friends were used to seeing his Facebook page go into overdrive just before Tax Day. After all, the 30-year-old former Watsonville High soccer star had moved to Turlock and become a Liberty Tax franchisee.
But on April 1 of this year, there was something new mixed into the usual rotation of ads for no-interest loans featuring women dressed as the Statue of Liberty: a frenzied stream of posts about starting a new semi-professional soccer team in his former hometown.
“It’s time we do something about the lack of opportunities for outstanding players in our community,” Castaneda wrote in the post. “Let’s make Watsonville a powerhouse in soccer.”
Castaneda suggested that the team could play in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a nationwide division four minor league team. The goal would be to provide exposure to overwhelmingly Latino local talent that was being overlooked by college and professional scouts.
Within hours, the post generated dozens of comments in English and Spanish offering time, sponsorships and emojis to the cause. “The high-level players will be there one way or another,” one friend commented, before adding a note of caution: “It’s the support of the community that keeps projects like this from being just a two- to three-year thing.”
Between Watsonville, Salinas and the Santa Cruz Breakers development academy, the Central Coast has long been a hotbed for soccer talent. Where problems arise is fostering that talent despite the brutal economics of elite athletics, which tend to wreak havoc on working-class players who must decide between going off to college, trying to go pro, or sticking around to get a job and help their families survive.
Just ask Castaneda, who had to navigate the maze of high school, club, college and professional soccer possibilities in California as a teenager after moving to Watsonville from the agrarian Central Mexico state of Michoacán at 7 years old. A solid, 5’10“ central midfielder with obvious technical skill and unusually acute vision on the field, he became a crucial component of a Watsonville High squad ranked No. 1 in the nation in the mid-2000s.
“When you see him, you think of what a smooth player he is,” San Jose State University Soccer Coach Gary St. Clair said when he signed Castaneda to a full-ride scholarship in 2006.
At San Jose State, Castaneda commuted to school and practice from Watsonville, tacking on a 3-7 a.m. overnight shift at FedEx in between. Though he dropped out twice, earning an associate’s degree and playing at Cabrillo College in the meantime, he still finished the sociology degree he never really wanted from San Jose State in four years. After school, he went on to play for a number of competitive indoor and outdoor soccer teams, sometimes for money and sometimes as a recreational outlet as he tried to claw his way into a business career.
“Honestly, I feel like I could have gone professional,” says Castaneda, a fast talker with blue eyes that are prone to opening wide with enthusiasm. “I just never had a mentor.”
Three weeks after Castaneda raised the idea of launching a team, he had already given that team a name. Ville FC—with black and lime green team colors—also had a copyrighted logo, a date in July set for tryouts and a hashtag: #WeAreVilleFC. Even more important was the addition of business partner Cesar Garcia, another former semi-pro player and owner of Ernesto’s Cleaning Services in Watsonville.
For Garcia, 38, the push to provide more options for local soccer players—in a place where it’s easy to bide time in the weekend beer league—is personal.
“I have a son who’s 16,” says Garcia, who is Ville FC’s vice president and interim coach. “I wouldn’t want to watch him play Sunday League over there at Pinto Lake, finishing playing and drinking.”
Castaneda and Garcia are by no means the first to try this. The now-defunct Salinas Valley Samba also started up in the NPSL back in 2004, before folding due to financial pressures about five years later. This time around, Castaneda estimates it will take about $25,000, an expansion spot in one of the country’s fastest-growing soccer leagues, and navigating a Jenga tower of tenuous relationships between the area’s many competitive soccer clubs to make Ville FC a success.
Perhaps most challenging, though, will be convincing the community that this time will be different.
“People were talking all the time. No one did it,” says Fabian Martinez, owner of the downtown Watsonville store Super Soccer. “It takes guts to do it.”
Just before 8 p.m. on a recent cold and foggy Thursday night, two dozen soccer players age 14-30ish take the field under the lights at Watsonville High School. “¡Dale! ¡Dale!” (“Let’s go!”) Garcia shouts as a blur of black, white and neon yellow cleats scatter into formation for a drill.
On the sideline, Castaneda is busy sorting out details for an upcoming scrimmage against Salinas community college Hartnell College, the de facto landing spot for promising players in Monterey County who don’t quite make it to a four-year school. Castaneda and several of the roughly 30 players who survived an initial Ville FC tryout are alumni of Watsonville High, but costs and logistics like use of stadium lighting, the scoreboard and the press box are all still being ironed out as part of the team’s application to the NPSL.
If all goes well, the season will start in earnest in March, likely with another round of tryouts in January. In the meantime, Castaneda is focused on setting the club up financially by recruiting sponsors like Third Generation Berry Farms and Mi Tierra Taqueria, the latter having agreed to the all-important job of feeding visiting teams as the league requires.
“I feel like a lot of people still don’t believe that we’re gonna do this,” Castaneda says. “They’re hesitant, like, ‘Is this a tax write off?’”
Castaneda is fine-tuning his social media savvy on the team’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts in hopes of attracting sponsors. He’s also considering converting the ownership model from a partnership to a nonprofit, assuming the team’s league application is accepted, to pursue donations from big local companies like Driscoll’s, Giant and Martinelli’s.
For the players, the months leading up to the start of the season are all about getting in shape and trying to secure themselves a position on the team.
Omar Garibay heard about Ville FC by accident. The 23-year-old left midfielder was trying to call a friend and fellow soccer player named Jesus when he accidentally called a former coach from Pajaro Valley High School, also named Jesus.
“I kind of picked the wrong Jesus,” Garibay says. “I was like ‘Oh, my bad’ and hung up.”
Coach Jesus called back with tryout details. Without hesitation, Garibay decided to drive the eight hours to Watsonville from Indio, where he was living and working at a Target after getting priced out of Watsonville with his mom just before he graduated high school. He played soccer briefly for Southern California’s College of the Desert, but the classes he’d hoped to take in architecture were full, and he didn’t have any financial aid. Moving back to Watsonville to join the team, Garibay hopes, will offer him another shot at earning a scholarship to pay for the architecture classes he never got to take.
Though soccer is particularly youth-obsessed when it comes to moving up the professional ranks—players who compete internationally often join development teams by middle school, or at least high school—Castaneda aims for Ville FC to help get players in their twenties into schools with extra scholarship money to give away. Though some NPSL teams pay players a modest salary, Ville FC will not, so that players retain the amateur athletic status required for college soccer.
Whether players aim to go to college or to another semi-pro or professional team, Castaneda says, “Our main goal is to get these guys the hell out of here.”
But even getting to Ville FC’s first season is a challenge for Garibay and some of his teammates. A former coach offered him one month at his house rent-free, plus a job in construction framing the interiors of new houses in Silicon Valley five or six days a week. He gets up at 5 a.m. to go to work in San Jose, where he works until 5 p.m. most days and 3:30—to beat traffic—on practice days. It’s “a little tough,” Garibay says, but worth the extra effort.
“A lot of players from Watsonville don’t get the opportunity to try out other places. Usually you would have to go to L.A. or San Jose,” he says. “To have a team that is local, that opens a lot of doors.”
Local vs. Global
The Jesus that arranged Garibay’s accidental Ville FC tryout was Jesus Acuna. The 28-year-old former playmaker from Pajaro Valley High School went on to coach younger players like Garibay at his alma mater after his own soccer career was cut short.
Though many teammates talked about playing in college or Major League Soccer (MLS) when he was in high school a decade ago, Acuna had no interest in the web of applications, GPA requirements and financial aid forms required to play in the U.S. Instead, he went back to Mexico, where he had lived in the Northern state of Sonora until he was 12. He played for a year on a development team at Mexico City’s storied Club América.
“It was the dream I’d had since a little kid,” Acuna says. “And the only thing I was good at.”
Weighing academics against athletics is a balancing act in any sport, but in Castaneda’s experience, schools in the region are particularly bad at emphasizing education for Latino players. At Watsonville High, where 96 percent of students are Latino and 81 percent are considered “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” just over half of students who graduate are even academically eligible to go straight to a four-year college in California. When Castaneda did get to San Jose State, he found that underachieving was encouraged in the name of academic eligibility for soccer.
“I wanted to be a civil engineer,” says Castaneda, who graduated with a degree in sociology. “All the Hispanic kids were history, sociology, criminal justice. All the white people were engineers, business.”
Playing in Mexico, Acuna got his own education about the cutthroat business of soccer—“it was a good experience, but not what I thought it would be,” he says. After playing at América, he bounced around briefly at clubs like Querétaro and found that he didn’t have the professional connections to last. He came back to Watsonville around age 20, where, during a tough time, he and his girlfriend soon found out their first child, a son, was on the way.
“Honestly, I fell into this really hard depression when I came back,” he says.
While negative stereotypes about gang involvement or low graduation rates for young Latino men are commonly discussed in the media—and increasingly, politics—medical research has found that mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are under-studied in this same demographic. Limited access to health care also complicates the picture in many largely minority communities like Watsonville.
Castaneda says that families struggling to get by can also have more trouble supporting young players. Because their work always came first, he says, “my parents never watched me play until the last game of college.”
Acuna is now a married father of two working construction in and around Watsonville. Though he had a chance to go back to Mexico to play in his early twenties, he stayed to secure his U.S. citizenship. In the last two months, going back to playing with Ville FC has helped him drop 30 pounds—and more importantly, connect with a new generation of players trying to figure out where and how they might keep playing.
“Never leave it as, ‘What could have happened?’” Acuna tells them. “Don’t finish like me.”
Already, the youngest player on Ville FC, 14-year-old Pajaro Valley High student Kevin Rincon, has decided to make a change. He has plans to try out in early September for Mexican club Monarcas Morelia.
A Crowded Field
For most casual soccer fans, the big names in area soccer seem few and far between: the San Jose Earthquakes, the Santa Cruz Breakers, the Stanford Cardinal. But in reality, the constellation of under-the-radar clubs, community colleges and semi-pro teams operating on the Central Coast and surrounding areas is big and getting bigger.
In recent years, new teams in the fourth-division NPSL, fellow fourth-division Premier Development League (PDL) and second-division United Soccer League (USL)—the tiers in U.S. soccer under Major League Soccer—have formed in cities like Fresno, Turlock, Sacramento and Sonoma, among others. In addition to putting Watsonville on that map, Garcia and Castaneda see an opportunity to climb the ladder to higher divisions, if the level of play and funding for the team proves reliable.
“It’s really difficult,” Garcia concedes, though he thinks it can be done. On top of sponsorships and ticket sales, trading top players to teams willing to pay a transfer fee is the primary way soccer teams earn revenue to grow their operations. Garcia is well-acquainted with teams in the region. He left Mexico at 16 after a professional contract with the club Necaxa fell through, joining his parents in Watsonville and playing semi-professionally with the Santa Cruz Breakers and other clubs in San Jose, San Francisco and elsewhere. He had planned to go back to the Breakers, but an injury forced him into an active retirement playing recreationally and coaching.
For the clubs already up and running nearby, the new team could be seen as a threat. Since Watsonville hasn’t had its own semi-pro team before, local players often leave town in search of opportunity, which Ville FC hopes to change. “We want those that are from here to stay here,” Garcia says.
Whether that will go over well with neighbors like the Santa Cruz Breakers, however, is an open question.
“The Breakers come in and they take the best players,” Castaneda says. “We see less and less talented players come out of Watsonville.”
Still, to compete for the top players needed to advance to a higher division, Ville FC would also likely have to cast a wide net and recruit from neighboring cities.
“Kids are going to come from Salinas, Santa Cruz, Gilroy,” Garcia says. “I want to have 50-60 percent from here.”
While it’s not difficult for the duo to imagine where Ville FC might go, they acknowledge there’s a long way to go. As a way to build goodwill at a recent scrimmage against Hartnell College, played in front of a crowd of about 450 people, the team gave away $800 in scholarships to kids who attended the game with their parents.
The experience reminds Castaneda of his first few months out of college, back when even the thought of public speaking was enough to make him black out one time in class. Still, he suffered through door-to-door sales for cable, phone and internet in Watsonville until he saved enough to start his tax business.
“The hardest thing about a business is starting,” he says. “Getting up off of the couch and making things happen.”
Update: This story previously misstated the PDL’s current standing in the U.S. soccer system. It is currently a fourth-division league.