Creating a Solution
When you take a peek into the US soccer system you are met with various problems that stunt the growth of the sport in our country. These various barriers to entry are often discussed, but solutions are often glossed over. Rather than finding or workshopping solutions, it's easier to just talk about other systems, mostly in Europe, and daydream about the eventual change of our system into another model, a more European version. Of course there are the activists who have tried or continuously try to change the system, but their presence is often met with dismay from the people who are in charge of providing this sport to all those who seek to support it.
We are often taught that if you want change you have to get out and be the change that you want to see: play in a league that promotes sporting merit (pro/rel), offer a free/low cost academy, develop kids into professionals and promote the community that you play within. All of these qualities have been described as ways to build a club in some of the most successful leagues in the world.
The Aztec people have been known as a tribe whose ambition to improve life meant learning from pre-existing cultures and those cultures around them. The culmination of ideas that when put into practice would help further the community. These are the tenants of a great soccer club, these are the tenants of Azteca FC.
A team of two leagues
Leagues in the country all operate at different times. All the leagues have various lengths of schedule and majority of them don’t even reflect a full season. So, imagine trying to operate and grow a club and only playing 15 games a year. It’s just not ideal.
Azteca FC operates in two different leagues: the SFSFL and UPSL. The San Francisco Soccer Football League is a league that operates in Northern California. The league has over a hundred years of history, fields strong teams and offers promotion and relegations. The league is home to five clubs that have won the US Open Cup, most recently San Francisco Greek-American Athletic Club. “ SFSFL is the hardest league that I coach in,” said owner and head coach of Azteca FC, Rose Shoen, who adds “ SFSFL is a grind, because in the lower divisions the only way you move up is with points. There are no playoffs. You can't slack and end up in sixth and maybe make playoffs and get promoted. You have to be top two.”
There is a big difference to playing in a pro/rel league than playing in a league without it. First, no one wants to get relegated. Getting relegated brings a hint of shame to your club. You can lose fan base and players could then move on from your club to participate at a higher level. That failure can bring about introspection and force an analysis on the club’s practices. Relegation forces a club to make adjustments to become a better club, it forces a club to break mediocrity and strive for something greater, to strive for promotion. Azteca FC is a club who has continued to push the envelope. In back-to-back seasons within the SFSFL Rose’s men have battle to earn promotion. In that battle, the club has positioned themselves in a place to be challenged by hardened veterans of the game. “ In the SFSFL there are men's teams legitimately train,” said Shoen about the difficulty of the league. She added “ there are players getting paid in the premier division, so you are competing against men who take it seriously. You are competing against men who are preparing 4-5 days a week to prepare for that Sunday game, to win.”
This increase in competition will bring about many challenges on the pitch. Currently, Azteca FC has won one match, drawn one and have lost five, which has them currently in the relegation zone, but tied on four points with two other clubs. While the results may not have been in Azteca’s favor, Rose and her squad look to continue to embrace the challenge and continue to improve during the remainder of the season. Some of those improvements have started to occur as Azteca has only allowed four goals in the last three games against some of the strongest sides in the premier division.
Azteca FC also competes within the United Premier Soccer League. The UPSL is one of, if not the biggest national league in the country. They host over 300 clubs and even offer pro/rel in various regions. Azteca FC played in the Wild West North division in the Fall 2018 season, where the club finished in third place. Just outside the playoffs. “ A higher level of professionalism is needed in the UPSL,” said Shoen when describing UPSL. She added “ it’s stricter, there is no re-entry after being subbed. You really have to be a champion to be in the starting eleven.” The UPSL has given Shoen an opportunity to teach her young players the importance of hard work and the meaning of being in the starting XI.
On top of competing in two leagues, Azteca FC have gone on to play high quality sides such as FC Golden State Force (USLL2), Sacramento Gold (NPSL) and various college squads. Azteca FC believes in challenging its players and that these challenges will develop stronger professionals in the future.
A team for all
In the US, soccer is consistently considered as a sport for the upper-middle class. If you have the exposable income, you can become a soccer star. But soccer should be the sport for everybody. There’s only a couple of ingredients needed to participate in the sport: a ball and a passion for the game. The game shouldn’t cost thousands of dollars a season, kids shouldn’t have to travel hours and hours to compete against another club and parents should feel that not only are their children becoming better soccer player, but are becoming better humans and are giving a pathway to become successful. Azteca FC provides a club for multiple generations of boys and girls. The club teaches each player more than just the fundamentals to the sport, it teaches each player the importance of hard work and dedication to a craft.
The Azteca academy is a low cost option for the Sacramento community. The club members partake in futsal sessions, physical conditioning and are guided through the process of how to apply for colleges in the future. What sticks out about the organization, is that they perform grade checks. Soccer is emphasized as a privilege and can be used to take you to greater heights in the future. “ Our mission is to educate first generation student athletes about college opportunities and to open up doors for them. We are really a scholarship program,” said Shoen. “We obviously compete as a club, but our main mission is to educate these kids about how the college system works, what it takes to be a collegiate athlete and what opportunities are available to get your education through soccer,” she said when describing the benefits of her academy.
The club has gone on to already provide multiple opportunities for players that entered the Azteca academy. The club has gone on to publish nine different success stories through its website and looks to continue to add to the many players they have helped push on to the next level of education. Shoen and Azteca FC are grounded in the reality of what their players go through and how each success story is defined by different criteria. “ I always feel my objective, with any kid I bring into my program, is to get them a collegiate offer. But with some kids I work with, to even get them a high school diploma is a success, said Shoen about her work with her student athletes, she added “ I have other players where for them to go to a junior college and earn a two year degree is a success. Of course I would love to see all my players earn a bachelor's degree, but at the end of the day it's not always their reality.”
A generational club should be open to everyone regardless of income, gender or race. Azteca FC is giving that opportunity to many kids. And sometimes all a kid needs is an opportunity and someone to believe in their potential. That is exactly what Rose Shoen and Azteca FC are providing. They are creating a developing a generational club for the community and its civilians.
To change a problematic community, you need to be active and put forth the change that you want. It’s easy to complain about pro/rel, competition, youth development and the nature of competitive clubs in our soccer landscape. While most people will skip the solution and dream about the future, Azteca FC is creating a true generational community club. Its offering its youth a pipeline for growth and an ability to change one's fortune. Azteca FC is willing to work in the areas that are typically avoided by most soccer academies, its working with the section of the community that needs it the most. The section of the community that needs to understand the importance of collegiate opportunities. And the section of the community that would benefit the most from the lessons about developing ones life in a positive manner. Azteca FC embraces the children from lower incomes, the families fighting poverty and the hardships that are pushed upon them. Azteca FC is creating a club that truly benefits the community. Azteca FC is one of those clubs that are an example of the solution our soccer landscape needs to embrace. And hopefully we will.
- Steven Ramirez
To learn more about Azteca FC and their programs, check out their site!