New Mexico United
Working in sports is a grind.
Whether you’re a player or a coach aiming to deliver your best performance every time the team steps on the field, or working in the front office to make sure a club runs properly from top to bottom, it’s hard work.
But the amount of time that you put in is relative, right? You can be at a place for 10 to 12 hours a day, but when I compare that to what my parents had to endure – picking lettuce out in the hot sun, sun-up to sun-down, barely making ends meet – it seems a snap by comparison.
When I think about what hard work is, those were the two examples that I and my younger brother Max had growing up. When I think about why they were gone for so long, so many hours out of the day, I understood they were working their tails off to provide for my brother and myself.
And my dad, while he worked in the fields eight to 10 hours every day, he’d always look forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays. My brother and I would follow him to practice, and we’d be out there from five until seven to eight.
You would think after 10 hours out in the field, he would just want to sit down, relax, and kick his work boots off, but we would just grab our soccer gear and head over to the field.
It was the same thing on Saturday and Sunday. It didn’t matter if it was a long week of work. He really looked forward to those weekend games.
That feeling stayed with me.
As a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old kid we would go watch my dad and uncles play. I kid you not, all our aunts would go and cheer and have chants for them. They would harass the referee and we would have good laughs. Sometimes the games were intense because we also had a little rivalry with a team across town. But it just showed me that no matter how difficult things were, this game was a way to bring joy to people’s lives and a way to bring people together to celebrate the effort.
That was what life for me was like growing up in Salinas, California.
We were surrounded by community.
Our families originally come from a small rural town in Mexico. A couple of generations before us, our uncles moved here. My great-great grandfather was a bracero. He came out here, and they planted the seeds in a place where we could all move. Not everybody would have the opportunity or would take the risk to make the journey across the border, but when you got here, you had relatives that while distant immediately felt close.
We might not have grown up with a lot of things, but we grew up with a lot of special relationships.
Unfortunately, we also grew up in an environment that wasn’t always safe.
I grew up hearing gunshots on a regular basis. It was typical to hear it once a week. When I witnessed it, I felt like I had to get out. It’s difficult to grow up in an environment like that and have no one to go to, nothing to feel motivation or inspiration toward.
That was why I went to UCLA for college, even though I could have stayed closer to home.
The first couple of months in LA, I felt like I didn’t belong. I thought I might have made a mistake by bypassing full-ride scholarships to two schools closer to Salinas. I also felt like I was letting my parents down, and it got to a point where I had to call them and let them know that I might not be able to suit up at the end of the week because I couldn't pay for school registration.
It was hard. No one wants to let down their parents. But in the end, it made me determined to succeed. I was fortunate in that regard. I got an opportunity to play a little bit more halfway through the season, and I was able to make the most of that opportunity. I was named Soccer America's National Freshman of the Year, and I got on scholarship the next year.
There was another lesson it taught me, too. Even when you’ve worked your butt off to get to a certain point, you realize that there’s more left to give. That was certainly true when the Seattle Sounders drafted me. Just like at UCLA, I had to take a step back. I realized that I first had to believe that I belonged, then I could show each and every day in training that I could help this team be better.
Once you take yourself from the mindset of wanting individual success to wanting to help the team be successful, new doors open. In hindsight, I think that’s an approach that shows growth and maturity and brings success in the professional game. I was helped in that by some of my coaches, who took time to help me get better individually.
In Seattle, it was guys like Brian Schmetzer, who sat down with me to watch film and help me achieve at a higher level. After I joined the Charlotte Independence, assistant coach Troy Lesesne (now head coach at the New York Red Bulls) not only taught me to be a great leader, but also showed me what a great leader is. Head coach Mike Jeffries would sit with me and watch film. I thought that was the best I had ever played in the professional ranks, and Mike still wanted to find ways for me to get better.
When I reconnected with Troy a few years later, what I knew he would bring to the table was what initially attracted me to New Mexico United. When he approached me about joining the squad he was building for the club’s inaugural season, I knew we were going to be a team that wanted to be competitive from Day 1, aiming to make the playoffs and win championships.
Aside from that, I remember vividly talking to (owner) Peter Trevisani on a call before I ever met him in person. It was only about a 10- or 15-minute conversation, but he told me about the vision he had for a team that’s about more than soccer. It was going to be in the community, it was going to be impactful, and it was going to touch spaces like art and culture in new ways.
It all made sense and came at exactly the right time for me as a player, and a person. Coming to New Mexico was one of the best moves I’ve ever made.
What I’ve found in New Mexico is the same sort of close-knit community that reminds me of home. When I stepped away from playing and moved into a role helping launch the Somos Unidos Foundation with Chanel Weise-Carl, it was a whole other experience, but I immediately felt supported by the whole staff. From Peter and Chanel to Linnea Romero, David Wiese-Carl, and Jules Myers, I’ve felt supported every step of the way.
It’s always nice to have people that really believe in you and see the potential in you as well.
That belief and confidence is what I’m trying to pass on in my own way to the players we’re now working with in the New Mexico United Academy.
Every player on this team reminds me a little bit of myself. They’re all highly motivated. They’re all hungry. They all know that they’re in a city where it’s a little bit harder to make it to the next level.
But what makes our academy special is we not only have great technical staff, like Junro Narita, our Academy Director, but also meaningful support staff, such as Orlie Ramirez, who’s an academic liaison, and Charlie Kaiser, who’s our mental health coach.
Our hope is through that support, our players can believe in their ability to perform at the highest level and achieve anything that they want.
I’ve already seen that sensibility in some of the stuff these kids are achieving. We’ve had a lot of success in terms of wins. I know the side’s winning percentage is impressive.
But what I’m most proud of is that our players have outstanding grades, are consistently serving in our community clinics, and are being role models when they interact with younger kids.
When we talk about impact, I see those memories they’re creating for the younger kids, who themselves now feel that they can potentially one day play for this team. That’s the bigger-picture goal we’ve set, and as long as I’m here it’s always going to remain the priority above results.
Like I said, when you surround yourself with people who truly want the best for you, no matter if you decide to play in college or if you choose to pursue your education, it does not matter to us.
What matters to us is that you enjoy your time here, that you develop as a person, and you just want to make the world a better place.
That’s how you build a community that can empower each other through the grind to success.
From The Pitch aims to provide a platform for individuals within the USL to share their thoughts on things that matter most to them – at the crossroads of life and the beautiful game. USL partner Bellevue University is committed to empowering motivated students to explore their passions, impact change in their communities and chase their dreams.