It’s early on a Saturday morning and Victor Juarez, 16, goalkeeper for the El Camino Real Futbol League is on his way to a team breakfast followed by a practice session with the San Jose Earthquakes Youth Academy.
“Without the (El Camino) club’s genuine interest in all the families and young people that are part of it, I would not be where I am today,” says Juarez, a senior at Everett Alvarez High School. “El Camino has given me a solid foundation for my soccer career. I’m very thankful for the support of these coaches.”
San Jose is more than an hour away from Salinas, California where Juarez spent six years developing as a player through the El Camino Real system. Training with a Major League Soccer team’s youth academy is just part of a dream come true for Juarez, who has made a verbal commitment to the University of Portland in Oregon. Graduating from college is the other.
Founded in 2006 by Carlos Rubio and Richard Mussalem, El Camino Real has become a substantial youth league, with 15 teams that on any given day serve up to 230 local youth.
“Respect, leadership, work ethic… that’s what we’re trying to promote. These are the skills that they will use later on in life, showing up to school, showing up to practice. These are the same concept, the idea of being responsible, being committed.” – David Mancera, President, El Camino Real Futbol League
“We’re focused on three programs: soccer, health and wellness, and academics,” he says with pride. “I am excited that we’re able to provide our community, our youth, a positive avenue to develop as young human beings through the game of soccer.”
David Mancera took on the role as president last year. “When they are done with high school,” he says, “we hope our players have the necessary skill sets, and specifically, the softer skills to help them become contributing citizens to our society, our community.”
Soccer has been a big motivator for Karina Briseño, who at 15 was captain of the Thundergirls, an El Camino Real team for girls under 17.
At Alisal High School, Briseño took AP classes in physics and math, and her parents required her to get good grades, “at least a B,” she says, in order to be allowed to play. “I have straight A’s right now so it’s not really a problem.” Studying mechanical engineering at Hartnell College, Briseño is 18 now, and happy all that hard work is showing dividends.
“With all the work I’ve put into soccer, I’ve really become a better person. As a captain, I feel like you’re supposed to be a role model and supposed to do the right thing. It’s given me a leadership role.” – Karina Briseño, Player, El Camino Real Futbol League
Her teammate, Eliza Ramirez, who was also a member of the Thundergirls, says playing soccer helps keep kids out of trouble and away from negative influences, a significant risk for youth in Salinas. “Some of my friends are kind of on that path,” she says, adding that she considers her friends as family. “They don’t play sports and she worries they may end up dropping out of high school.”
On a sunny Saturday, the Thundergirls were doing pre-game warm-ups at Bolsa Knolls Middle School in Salinas. The girls stretched and jogged, then practiced their passes, while coach Alonso Marquez shouted encouragement. The league gives young players the chance to play in a more competitive atmosphere, challenging them to be better players and people, Marquez says.
League co-founder Carlos Rubio points out that “soccer is a game that offers opportunity to everybody,” a great leveler where, since height and weight aren’t necessary, all that matters in the end is skill, and heart. That, he implies, is something the kids in Salinas have in great measure.
The vision of a network of caring family, teachers and coaches bringing out the potential of student athletes is attractive. “You know, it’s multidimensional,” says Rubio, “so what I look at are the kids, number one, developing into soccer players but also, their academics and making sure that it gives them a drive to attend school. Probably not every player is going to make it to the professional level, but possibly for a college, or the local schools here, yes. It will keep them together physically and mentally.”
“Most of our kids come from farmworker families, and as we all know, it’s hard to earn a decent wage, to make a living as a farmworker,” says Mancera, who grew up in nearby Chualar, a small agricultural community south of Salinas.
“Because soccer is such a big piece of this community,” he continues, “we’re using soccer really, as that carrot, to promote and encourage our kids to pursue higher education as a path to a different life, a better life.”
Judging from the quiet confidence of leaders like Victor Juarez and Karina Briseño, the young players of El Camino Real Futbol League are well on their way.
For more information about El Camino Real Futbol League, visit www.elcaminorealfutbol.org.