Migrant Dreams and Soccer Journeys

Juan Sanchez, as a youngster, dribbling past a defensive player
Juan Sanchez, as a youngster, dribbling past a defensive player

Below a crisp blue sky lies an open field of green. Its perfectly trimmed Bermuda grass is a uniform hue, devoid of light greens and browns. This bed is framed by two sets of rounded goal posts with white nets that cut through space with the precision of a spider’s web. Every element of this spatial configuration is deliberate, conducive to its purpose of playing soccer in as perfect form as possible. Under the direction of Juan Sanchez, the Mount San Antonio Community College soccer team has come pretty close to perfection. This San Gabriel Valley based college squad is one of the best the state, winning the state championship four times and national championship twice. Each year, Juan Sanchez meticulously selects local players, creates a formation and game plan for the season. He is precise, able to see hidden designs of the game that other less incisive observers might miss. He is also able to see in each individual player, the intricacies of their often complicated lives as they manage college life with work, family and other factors. He has a keen eye for the details that shape their personal character and eventually determine their life paths on and off the pitch. Sanchez’s own journey as a successful soccer coach has been formed by his hardships. Moreover it’s a life journey that began well before his birth, and continues today into the many divergent paths of his students and players.

Soccer runs in the blood of Sanchez’s family, from his father, down to his own children, each generation inheriting a shared seriousness for the sport that is truly more a way of life. His father, Aurelio, was a milkman in the outskirts of Guadalajara, with a passion for soccer. Like most young men, he grew up playing soccer in the city’s cobble stone streets and dirt fields, until at 17 years of age, he was picked up by a local professional team. However, despite his promising future, Aurelio’s father prohibited him from traveling outside of Guadalajara. With his soccer career cut short, Aurelio bought a bus, started a route, and soon married Bernice, Sanchez’s mother. Don Manuel, a family friend located in Los Angeles, offered Aurelio money to defend his team’s goal posts on the weekends and labor in his factory Monday through Friday. He eventually moved Sanchez and his family to the San Gabriel Valley.

Aurelio Sanchez, Juan’s father and professional soccer player

This is how Sanchez’s family became an immigrant family. This came with cultural and financial challenges as Sanchez learned to adapt. They rented a small garage, attached to a house, in Pico Rivera. It lacked air conditioning, a heater, windows, and plumbing. To use the bathroom they had to go into the main house. They saved their money and moved into an apartment on Klingerman Street, near El Monte’s Maxon Elementary School. Sanchez did not like school, but took advantage of recess to play soccer on the black asphalt pitch: “I remember clearly that one day I was walking around with my black shoes, no shoe laces. We’re playing soccer and I kicked the ball. Shoe came flying out, and I lost my shoe. They sent me to the office and I tell the nurse ‘I lost my shoe, I lost my shoe.’ She said, ‘You lost your tooth? We can’t find your tooth.’ I remember the whole school day walking around without a shoe.”

But in their new home, they found stability in the constancy of soccer, particularly on the fields at Whittier Narrows in South El Monte, where he played his first official games. The white chalk lines that marked the field’s boundaries were often crooked, the grass was both overgrown and worn with patches of dirt in its most used areas, and the soccer nets hung loosely from top to bottom. Despite the humble field, Sanchez’s inherited talent manifested itself and together with his father, began constructing a shared futbolero dream. Sanchez was not endowed with great physical attributes. In fact, he was consistently one of the shorter and smaller players on the field. But he had a tremendous work ethic, and under the guidance of his father practiced regularly and became a skilled attacking player. In addition to having a strong right foot, he had uncanny ability to read the game.

Top row, second from the left, Juan is pictured with the second division Mexican team Inter-Tijuana

After a few years, cheaper rent and more affordable homes convinced the Sanchez family to move east to Pomona, where Sanchez attended Garey High School. While this school fielded strong soccer teams, it offered very little academically. “No one knew what college was at Garey,” Sanchez remembered. “You go to high school, you go work.” Fortunately for Sanchez, by playing for the Walnut Valley Santos, a club team based in the affluent city of Walnut, he learned that there was “something outside of high school, outside of Pomona.”

It was through soccer that Sanchez’s horizons opened up to include college. After Garey he planned to attend California State University at San Diego, but a visit to the Cal State Los Angeles (CSULA) campus quickly altered his plans. Rick Rodriguez, a soccer pal, was scouted by CSULA and invited Sanchez to accompany him. A first-generation college student, the young Sanchez was surprised to find that the head coach was none other then Leonardo Cuellar, a former Pumas player and member of Mexico’s 1970 World Cup Team. Coach Cuellar, for his part, was familiar with the name of this young eighteen-year old player. “We were looking and asking who you were and if you were interested in coming to Cal State L.A” Cuellar told Sanchez. His reputation off the pitch proved to be enough. Between a soccer scholarship and financial aid, Sanchez was given a full ride. At CSULA Sanchez continued to grow as an attacking player. If his shot from afar and vision made him a threat, he now developed the ability to dribble past two and three defensive players. His effort and play were rewarded with a 1st Team All-CCAA selection two years in a row, and All-Far West Region 1st Team Honors his senior year.

The fulfillment of Sanchez and his father’s dream to be a professional Mexican soccer player seemed to be within reach as he was sent to play for Pumas in Mexico City. He left Gaby, his high school sweetheart and current wife, and family, and headed to the Mexican capital. The Pumas roster was filled with national team players, like Jorge Campos and “Capi” Perales. While his teammates dubbed him “Bush,” after the U.S. President George Bush, they treated him “very well.” Yet, the Mexican-born, but U.S.-raised Juan Sanchez felt, once again, very much like the first grader standing in the nurses office at Maxon elementary. “I didn’t speak the language as well I should because I had the English background. I felt like the odd man out. A lot of it has to do with trying to be part of both.” After four months of training, Pumas let him go.

Back in the U.S., Juan tried his luck with the shaky, amorphous scene that was U.S. professional soccer, still in its formative stages. From 1993 to 1997, the Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) was the only professional league in the United States; the equivalent of today’s Major League Soccer. “I get here,” Sanchez reflected on his Anaheim Splash try-out, “and there is over 100 players for two spots. And because I had just gotten back from Mexico, the altitude, having all the smock in me, I was one of the top two.” After one year with Anaheim he was traded to Pittsburg Stingers, and then again to Detroit Safari in 1997, the league’s final season. Both times he left Gaby and Alex, their new son, in Los Angeles.

Sanchez’s professional soccer career, and his soccer dream in general, reached a precipice in Mexico. Tragically, the on-the-field success of his second division team, Inter-Tijuana, was eclipsed by management’s poor administration. Players were not paid on time or treated well. The Mexican American players were housed in the owner’s hotel, but the Mexican players, often along with their families, lived in unfurnished apartments. To add insult to injury, the team fought their way into the playoffs only to be told by the Federation that they were disqualified because the club had not paid its fees. For Sanchez, this was compounded by the fact that the team did not allow him to try out for the newly founded Major League Soccer in the U.S..

Sanchez’s life-long soccer journey and shared futbolero dream ended in Tijuana. Like a deported migrant he returned home empty handed and found himself bitter, depressed, and disappointed. He vowed to leave soccer behind. The game, however, was not done with him. The head coach at Damien High School, a private and elite school for boys, invited Sanchez to be his assistant coach. He agreed. Between running drills on the pitch and substitute teaching at his old elementary, he found his way. Instead of seeing his journey as an unfulfilled dream, he began to appreciate all the things that he gained along the way — particularly a college education. Soccer’s roads, he found, had multiple and equally valid endings. Through coaching, he could send countless children of migrants down its many paths.

Juan Sanchez and his team at Mt. SAC, 2007

For the last fourteen years, his Mt. SAC Men’s teams have made eight appearances in the State Final Four and won the state championship four consecutively from 2009 to 2012. And yet, when I asked him about his most memorable win, he pointed to a playoff game against Santa Ana College. Confident that they would beat Mt. SAC, Santa Ana booked their hotel rooms for the Final Four to be held in Lemoore, CA, a long drive from Southern California. There was very little indication that this was an unwise move. Nobody, except the Mt. SAC coaching staff and its players, believed they could win. Talent and history were on Santa Ana’s side, but it was hard work and not talent that was the deciding factor. It is the lesson from this game that defines Sanchez’s approach to coaching. “Honestly, to me, its not about the championships,” he affirmed, “its about developing the individual, developing these young kids into young men. Realizing that soccer is similar to life: what you put into it, how hard you work at it, how hard you commit to yourself, that part of it, whatever you do in life, is gonna give you the state championship.”

If life is like soccer, then its many lessons are to be found in the journey as well its destination. The son of Mexican migrants, Sanchez grew up in the working class neighborhoods of the San Gabriel Valley. Through soccer he received a college education, traveled to Mexico City, across the United States and to Tijuana, before finally finding his home at Mt. SAC. It is here, at the community college, that he opens doors and sets many local first generation college students on their own journeys. Over the last fourteen years his players have received scholarships to play at numerous four-year universities, which include UC Berkeley, UCSB, UCI, UCR, CSUN, CSUF, CSULA, the University of Connecticut. Others, like this current PhD Candidate in history at Columbia and Garey alumn, have gone on to excel in the classroom. Today the generational dream of playing professional soccer continues with his own son, Alex.