As the sun sets behind a Santa Ana soccer field, the sweat starts to evaporate from the boys' soaked, red jerseys. A word becomes more visible: MONARCAS.
The boys range in age from 9 to 17 and in skill level from beginner to almost-ready-to-go-professional, but they are all Latino—and all wear matching blue-and-red-striped socks and jerseys with a strangely shaped "M" near their chests. The logo is very well-known: Monarcas Santa Ana is the newest official centro de desarrollo—"development center," or farm team—of Monarcas Morelia, a first-division, professional soccer team from the capital city of the Mexican state of Michoacán.
Aside from the 46-boy squad in Santa Ana, the Monarcas have two other farm teams in the U.S., one in Atlanta and another in Chicago. The Orange County-based team has three different age groups. The U12s, the youngest bunch at 12 years and younger, play in an indoor soccer league; the U14s play in the Coast Soccer League against clubs such as Anaheim Futbol Club and Empire Soccer Club; and the U17s play in tercera division—a start-up league with teams in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
For Guillermo Camino, the team's founder and head coach, the goal of the centro is twofold: to prep boys to play professional soccer and to change the soccer culture in Orange County. "You know, we've got to make something different, because the leagues here, they're all about money, money, money," he says. "We don't do it for the money; we do it to help kids."
There's certainly no shortage of places for kids to play soccer in the area. Choices range from scores of club teams, some of which charge upward of $2,000 per season, to AYSO and the Boy Scouts league. Some of the county's bigger club teams, including the Pateadores Soccer Club of Mission Viejo, have development academies, which help the U.S. national team keep tabs on highly skilled boys. The LA Galaxy and Chivas USA also have development academies for promising young players. But for most boys, the first taste of stardom comes on a high-school soccer field.
Many of the boys on Monarcas Santa Ana also play for their high-school teams, Camino says. But they're careful not to overlap seasons, he adds, because that violates state bylaws about playing on high-school and club teams at the same time.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Monarcas Santa Ana practices on a makeshift field at Clinton Elementary School in Garden Grove. The team usually practices in Santa Ana—Mondays at Centennial Park, Wednesdays at Santa Ana Stadium—but the stadium wasn't available today. After a couple of quick laps, the boys separate into three groups and head to different parts of the field.
Camino, or "Don Guillermo" as parents and fellow coaches call him, works with the youngest boys. A big-eyed, chubby boy with a faux-hawk hairdo hoists a soccer ball in the air, follows it with his eyes, then meets the ball with the top of his foot, propelling it into the air, and then once more. The ball falls to the ground, and the boy frowns. "That's it; that's it. That time was two, and next time will be three," Camino says, before turning to a parent calling for his attention.
"I'll be there in a second," he says in Spanish. "Well, in a Mexican second."
About 25 yards away, 17-year-old Jessie Naranjo, one of the few players who really piqued the interest of the Monarcas' recruiter when he visited in June, weaves among his teammates. Every few seconds, the La Sierra High School forward's neon-orange cleats squeak against the unkempt grass as he glides to a stop before hitting the ball with his head. "You don't have to stop. Faster, faster," says coach Reynaldo Lopez, whose son plays on the team. Lopez, who used to play second-division soccer in Mexico, walks away, as the boys continue the drill.
When he comes back, he asks through a smile, "You call that a line, cabrones?" The boys laugh and straighten out.
Like Camino and Lopez, coaches Felipe Anaya and Juan Campos have day jobs and don't get paid to coach. They do it because they believe in it, says Anaya, whose 12-year-old son, Julian, also caught the eye of the recruiter from Morelia. Hugo Casillas, a soccer wunderkind who left Estancia High School to play for the Club de Futbol Estudiantes Tecos in Guadalajara, is now back in the area and helping out, too. Casillas receives some cash for his efforts, Anaya says, adding, "We need his name because he played for Tecos."
Raul Lopez has three boys on the team, and he says it's much more affordable than most clubs. "There's more flexibility," Lopez says in Spanish. "It's a lot cheaper than some other clubs, where you can pay up to $2,000, maybe $3,000 per year. We're paying a lot less than that, but they're learning the same methods."
Camino says the costs per boy add up to about $25 per month, which covers the use of the fields, lights and equipment.
The head coach has been entrenched in soccer circles for a long time. Camino played for the Tecos' low-division team, and his son played for several important club teams, too. It was through his son that he met a man who had a farm team for the Monarcas in Tijuana and eventually made contact with Osvaldo Castro in Morelia.
As the coordinator of fuerzas básicas for Monarcas Morelia, Castro oversees the various teams that groom boys to play professionally. He came to Santa Ana in June for his first visit since the recently forged agreement and said he was impressed with a few players and the facilities. "I went to Santa Ana to visit them, to orient them and to support them," he says. "I saw some kids who really caught my eye, who are going to come to Morelia in December. We'll see if they fit the profiles for positions we need."
According to Castro, the partnership is a win-win. "In Santa Ana, there are plenty of talented kids," he says. "But it's important to have these training centers so there's a wide-open door into the world of professional soccer."
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In the past, boys who have moved to Morelia from the U.S. haven't had much trouble adapting, Castro says, adding that because of their Hispanic roots, the boys often still feel at home. He adds, however, that the chances of playing as a foreigner are very slim—because the Mexican teams only take in three or four foreigners total—and that boys who have Mexican citizenship, or can get it, are more likely to be recruited.
If at least one of the boy's parents was born in Mexico, it's pretty easy to get citizenship. Such is the case for the Anaya family, as Felipe was born in Mexico. "Right now, he's a gringo, but I can get him citizenship, so it's doable," Anaya explains. Even with the citizenship, Anaya says, he knows things wouldn't be easy for Julian in Morelia. "He's still going to have to work hard, and he's still going to have to ride the bench for a while because he's not connected."
For Naranjo, knowing it won't be easy makes the dream of landing a gig with Monarcas Morelia all the more enticing. "That motivates me more," he says. "Now, you're not just playing normal; now, you gotta try harder. It's a goal. It takes a lot of time, and you have to put effort into it. You have to sacrifice other things."
This article appeared in print as "OC's Mini-Monarcas: A Mexican first-division soccer team looks to groom its next generation of talent in Santa Ana."