2018 Protagonist Soccer Club of the Year

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When we made the list for Club of the Year, we all used our own logic to choose our nominee. Each club had merit in their own right and each writer had specific reasons for choosing each club. Those reasons were given here, but for some online they weren’t good enough. Some felt it was a beauty contest, lacking substance. Some pointed to records, conveniently ignoring the off-the-field material. Some complained that the process was flawed, that there should have been a write-in candidate slot. Well, I’m happy to report that the voting is done and winner has accomplished plenty off and on the field to earn that vote.

Inocentes FC

My first exposure to Inocentes was two years ago working on a different soccer project. I met Mario Alcalá, the club president, and was struck by the level of sincerity and focus he exuded in our interview. We discussed his club’s history, which I wrote about for our site here, the generational connection between the modern club and the club that was formed by immigrant relatives 70 years before. There was something incredible hearing a club official talking about layers of history going back into the ‘50s and ‘60s - especially in a country that seems to be unaware of its soccer history. Inocentes is a family heirloom that is cherished by Mario and his brother, Luis, who coaches the club. They know and value this club and its history because their grandfather, father, and uncles did before them.

UPSL Spring Season

2018 was a big year for Inocentes FC as it moved into the North Division of the UPSL Central from Fort Worth local leagues. From the start the club showed its mettle in the face of tough competition. With a club full of first-time UPSL competitors, Inocentes went undefeated its first season, qualifying for the UPSL Central Playoffs. It won its first match and proceeded into the Conference Final against fellow North Division opponent, Dallas Elite FC. Inocentes emerged victorious, 3-2, taking the Conference Championship and earning a trip to Colorado for the National Playoffs - in its first season in the UPSL.

What happened next is not unique to Inocentes FC, but it contributes to a bigger picture of the club and its connection to the community. With a trip across several states looming, the club put out a call to its local supporters to help raise funds. Pictures of parents, cousins, friends, lining up to purchase plates of food to support the club filled social media. Those were soon followed by photos of players and coaches getting onto buses, partially paid for by the generous outpouring of community support. This is what local soccer is about; tying the club to the community. Inocentes is supported because generations of players have worn the name and familial roots have grown deep into local neighborhoods. The club represents the community - in the past, of course, but now in a new league with new challenges - and the community continues to give its support to its sons, nephews, and cousins.

Inocentes’ run in the 2018 Spring National Playoffs was over quickly. The first match was against Southeast Conference Champions Florida Soccer Soldiers. Florida jumped out to a quick lead and held on to win 2-0. After the match, Alcalá’s quote revealed his character: “I thought we deserved a better result, but unfortunately this game isn’t about deserving.” Of course he was disappointed and heartbroken at the quick exit, it was the club’s first loss of the season, but he wouldn’t complain about hypotheticals - the game isn’t about deserving.

How did the early exit affect the club? “The loss motivated the guys to work even harder. We have a confident group who feel they can compete with anyone so it wasn’t hard in that respect.” So the Alcalá brothers went back and rather than dwelling on the loss, they highlighted the success of their first season. They went undefeated in league play, won their conference playoff, and even won their consolation match against Boise Cutthroats. This wasn’t a season to complain about, but something to celebrate. And off the field, the success had sparked community interest. Players’ families, unable to make the trip to Colorado, had put together viewing parties and streamed the match. That connection to the community had actually grown stronger, regardless of the loss.

UPSL Fall Season

While some clubs decided to take the UPSL Fall Season off, Inocentes came back with a furious effort in an expanded Central Division. Bouncing back from the National Playoff defeat, the club began the season without a loss in the first nine weeks. That run included two absolute drubbings of conference opponents, winning back-to-back matches 8-0 and 10-0. Conference powerhouse Dallas Elite FC would win their matchup in week ten, 2-0, giving Inocentes FC its first regular season UPSL loss. Two weeks later, Dallas Elite FC took the second matchup of the clubs 2-0 and gained a stranglehold on the North Division headed into the Conference Playoffs.

Inocentes FC took on South Division winner Atletico Katy in the first round of the playoffs. That match would go into penalties before Inocentes eventually won 4-2. The second round of the Conference Playoffs would match it against South Division runner-up Houston FC. That match was less tenuous, ending in a 4-1 win for the Fort Worth club. After two tough matches, the club would face its divisional rival, Dallas Elite FC, which had beat it twice already in the regular season.

I can only imagine the mindset of the players going into a match with a club that has proven it can beat you (twice!). Yet, the players of Inocentes FC were undaunted. This time, the score would again be 2-0, but this time it was Inocentes that was the winner and the Conference Champion for the second time in as many seasons. A berth to the National Playoffs had again been earned, this time into the Semifinal (due to the new playoff format).

Moving Forward

Of course, I don’t know how this year’s playoff run will end for Inocentes FC this year. Certainly it could end much the same way as last year. But for Mario Alcalá, this season has already been a win. When asked what was the biggest accomplishment of this year, he responded, “The consistency to win back-to-back conference championships and detaching ourselves from the ‘Sunday league team’ title. A lot of people within our community first learned of us in our local Sunday league, so being able to prove that we can take the club to the next level is huge.” Inocentes is far from being a Sunday league team, but prove that talent can win at all levels, especially with the backing of the community that surrounds it.

Congratulations to Inocentes FC, our 2018 Protagonist Soccer Club of the Year.

- Dan Vaughn