Club of Immigrants

Often, when we discuss soccer, we lump the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline, the general managers in the box, the owner in an office, all into a massive machine, one that wins or loses games, disappoints or thrills fans, lifts the trophy at the end of the season or falls somewhere short of the mark. It’s easy to treat a soccer club like a golem, designed to work for our pleasure, to fill our evenings with bliss. Each element of our creation is mixed into the mass to give us a goal here, a defensive stop there, but always the target is deliver the result we want, a championship. But this golem is not a mix of mud and sticks, a mindless worker striving for our approval, instead it is an organization that is made up of people, each with their own mind, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own backstories, their own hopes and dreams.

While we watch our clubs play, we rarely place our feet into the cleats of those that race across the field. How did that keeper end up in the box, guarding the net? What inspired that coach to live his life to this point, now standing next to the bench? And what about the last player on the end of the bench, earnestly staring towards his coach, hoping for a nod, what does he dream of someday being? The reality is that each of those individuals has a story, a path that led to this point and a series of goals that stretch into the future. The humanity of those that play the game may be varnished over by the colors of the kit, but for those on the field, this is real life.

San Jerónimo, Jalisco, Mexico

If you ask Mario Alcalá where his roots lie, it’s far from North Texas. You’d have to cross the entire state of Texas, hop the southern border of the United States, cross another couple of states (Mexican this time), past Guadalajara, to the tiny pueblito of San Jerónimo in the Mexican state of Jalisco. And tiny hardly describes the place, really it’s not much more than a spot on the map. A city with the population of less than 500, that you could blink and miss. But that tiny city in Mexico was the home of Mario’s ancestors. He often notes with pride, if you look at it in Google Maps, you can spot a soccer field in the tiny town. The importance of the sport to this tiny town is multiplied in Mario’s mind and his history. Going back in time almost 100 years, his family lived in that city and, some of them anyway, played soccer. And not just played the sport, excelled at it. They were good enough to have a team that was like family and would stay together across generations, thousands of miles, and eventually span a border. That team had the same name as it does today, Inocentes.

The team of the 1930's was populated with names that still fill the names on the backs of kits today. They played together, competed with other teams, and had pride in their tiny town’s team. As immigration began to sweep players north into the United States, the bonds that had formed on the soccer field held. Better jobs, chances for prosperity, education for their children drew families from the tiny town southeast of Guadalajara. These families moved to Texas over the decades, settling in and around Ft. Worth.

It’s not easy to uproot your family and plug them into a whole new way of living. The decision to do it is only made when all other options are exhausted. No matter how good the promise of a new country may sound, it’s still a sacrifice of life as you know it. The familiar sounds of the tiny village in Mexico would be replaced by the cacophony of a bustling metropolis. While many immigrants do speak English, speaking the language is another hurdle to cross for the first generation, particularly those of Spanish-speaking countries. The only solution to maintain one’s culture and survive is to build a tiny bubble of home in your new country. A place where Spanish can be spoken without  judgement, where food can taste just as it did in their Mexican homes, and where the game of soccer was the only futbol that mattered. While every generation of immigrants seeks to fit in and connect with their new culture, preserving the one they grew up in is a task for the soul, one that strengthens and grows the connection across generations.

The Game that Binds

Mario Alcalá, a third generation immigrant, is the president of Inocentes FC, who now play in the UPSL Central Conference - North Division. Based in Ft. Worth, the club’s history in the city goes back to the generation before Mario and his brothers. Inocentes has existed in the United States since the 1970s. As the families from San Jerónimo came to this country, they brought their love of soccer with them and what else to name the team they played on but Inocentes? Originally, the team competed in the the local Hispanic leagues. With their natural chemistry and common heritage, Inocentes won multiple championships in every league they competed in. Mario’s father and uncle both played for Inocentes in 1979 and now serve as influencers on the newest generation to wear the Inocentes crest.

But the generational connection isn’t limited to the Alcalá surname. Many of the players on this year’s UPSL side are the sons of players who played for the club in the 90’s. The little bubble that rose from Mexico and settled in Ft. Worth continues to provide a place for talent to germinate, eventually filling the roster of their local club. That talent was the reason Alcalá decided the club should head to greater competition. According to Mario, “the initial idea was to try and add the team into the NPSL,” but after an ex player recommended the UPSL they “looked into the league, spoke to Matt Khala (central conference commissioner), and we were sold on the league.” Inocentes made the leap from playing the local clubs to the UPSL.

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UPSL

Often thought of as football country, Texas has a strong soccer culture that begins in the countless youth leagues that fill the fields on the weekends. The same talent pool that produced players like Clint Dempsey, Reggie Cannon, Brek Shea, and Lee Nguyen, has encouraged the growth of countless youth programs developing the stars of tomorrow. The depth of talent, the level of coaching, the years of team play all combine in the state, making it the perfect spot for lower tier leagues to set up shop. Amatuer teams began popping up across the state, filling the conferences of the ever-expanding UPSL. This expansion is ongoing as the Central Conference has divided itself again, from North and South, to now include a Heart Division. Three divisions, 23 clubs (and counting), it is clear that Texas soccer is on the rise.

And that rise caught Inocentes and carried them into the UPSL. Standing out from a crowded Texas market could be a challenge for a new club, but to Alcalá, there’s a difference between Inocentes and other clubs. “When you have a group of people who are motivated by something other than money, it allows you to make decisions based on what is best for the team and not the bottom line. This philosophy allows us to create a culture that everyone wants to be a part of and I think that is what separates us from other teams in our state.” The 2018 Spring Season was the first year for the club to play in the league, but they played like it was their tenth. While some expansion clubs struggle to find chemistry and get wins, the Ft. Worth team played with confidence and skill. They dominated their division, finishing the regular season without a loss. Led by Captain Jorge Rodriguez and top scorer Anthony Powell were dominate in the UPSL Central - North. With regular season perfection locked up, Inocentes continued their run in the playoff, winning two more matches and booking a trip to the UPSL 2018 Spring National Playoffs in Colorado.

It doesn’t require a map to know that transporting a team from East Texas to Colorado is no small matter. So a club with roots in the community spanning back across generations did what it had done since it formed; it asked the families to provide a way for the team to get to the playoffs. And the community, full of transplanted families, many of which had sons and cousins and nephews on the club, came together at a team fundraiser to raise money for the trip. The outpouring support allowed the club to rent a bus and drive to Colorado.

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The playoffs were not as easy as the regular season had been for Inocentes. Their opening National playoff match was against Florida Soccer Soldiers, who had won the Southwest Conference. The playoff match ended 2-0 and, as quickly as it began, the playoff run was over. After the match, Mario was asked about the result. “It hurts even more because I thought we deserved a better result, but unfortunately this game isn’t about deserving.” The next day, Inocentes won their consolation match against Boise Cutthroats on PKs. Inocentes finished their inaugural UPSL season 7-4-1.

The Timeline Keeps Stretching

Maybe the game isn’t about deserving, but it’s definitely about heart and passion. And Inocentes FC has that in spades, from generations of immigrant soccer players. Without a pause, Mario and Inocentes began plans to prepare for the next season.  New blood is the first step. “We are bringing in new players to solidify the existing team and create even more depth. We are also fielding a U-20 team that will compete in a local amateur league to allow us to find and develop local talent in the Fort Worth area.” That drive to bring new faces into team colors will pay dividends as the team continues to grow. More fans, more interest, and more winning. The long term goal? “Long term, we want to build the team within the community like Chattanooga FC and Detroit City FC have done in their respective cities. We believe you do that by listening to the community and creating a product that everyone can be a part of regardless of their culture, economic situation, or otherwise.” A soccer club so influenced by their past, opening doors to those different from themselves. From the humble beginnings in San Jerónimo, Inocentes has traveled through the miles, years and generations to embody what many call the American Dream.

- Dan Vaughn

Lola Vaughn