Central California Aztecs Play Soccer in Spain
In 2005 two childhood friends and soccer fanatics, Ray Sanders and Ricardo Gutierrez, came together to form a new soccer club in Central California. Over the years the two, who had grown up in the Central Valley, had come to the conclusion that there were a great number of talented players in the Bakersfield region, but those players were not reaching their potential. Their goal was to provide hundreds of local kids with a life-changing experience through soccer, while at the same time putting Bakersfield soccer on the national map.
This summer the club, originally christened Central Cal Blues and now known as Central California Aztecs, took a major step when the Aztecs BU14 team and members of the BU18 team flew to Spain to compete in the Donosti Cup in San Sebastián.
In their short history, the Aztecs have made great strides toward being a key player in California soccer. Already members of the Southern California Developmental Soccer League (SCDSL), the Western Collegiate Development Association (WCDA), the National Premier League (NPL) and the California Regional League (CRL), the Aztecs earlier this year were accepted as a U13/14 U.S. Soccer Development Academy Club. The Aztecs also hold the distinction of being the only Bakersfield area club to participate in the prestigious Dallas Cup or to have had players represent their club at the National level.
“We are very proud of what the Aztecs have accomplished so far,” Sanders told SoccerNation News.
Sanders, the Aztecs Director of Coaching, is an eight-year coaching veteran whose playing career included youth experience with Claremont Stars and stops at Fresno Pacific University, Cal State Northridge and the Premier Development League (PDL). One of his greatest memories as a youth player was traveling to Sweden and Denmark to compete.
“It was a life changing experience and was a huge part of my youth soccer career,” he recalled of the trip. “As soon as I started coaching I wanted to provide an international experience for my players.”
That opportunity came about with the help of Loek van Zijl and Premier International Tours, a major player in the world of international youth sports travel. Van Zijl and his team worked with Sanders and the Aztecs to put together a travel package that included not only the Donosti Cup but a mini-camp with an Academy Club coach in Barcelona, a tour of Camp Nou and the FC Barcelona Museum, the obligatory sightseeing in Barcelona, and a tour of Real Sociedad’s home stadium in San Sebastián.
“The trip was awesome, and Loek and the Premier International Travel team were great,” said Sanders. “We chose the Donosti Cup in Spain because with all the resources kids have these days – TV, Fox Soccer, YouTube and so on – most of the kids wanted to go to Spain because of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Messi, and Ronaldo.”
In Spain the boys from California learned what it meant to play on the international stage. The BU14 team went 1-1-1 in bracket play and advanced to the second round of the tournament. Their first match was a 0-0 stalemate until the last 10 minutes of the game when their opponent, Mercedarios CF, scored. That opened the floodgates and the Aztecs found themselves falling 4-0. The team came back the next match with a 3-1 win over CD Vasconia and closed out bracket play with a 1-1 draw with Samaniego Ikastola. Their 4 points were good enough for second place in the bracket and advancement to the next round.
“We didn’t understand the tie breakers or the way advancing works, so when I told the boys that we were in fact advancing to the next round they exploded with cheers and excitement,” Sanders remembered. “It really kind of surprised me, but it was the second best moment of the trip for me. In the knock out rounds we were winning 1-0 until we gave up a goal in the final 2 minutes. We went to PKs and lost on the last shooter. It was a really sad moment, but I was very proud of the kids.”
Because they did not have enough players for a full team, the U18 boys under coach Ryan Valencia joined with a partial squad from Putnam City North in Oklahoma to form PCN-Central Cal. The team went 1-0-2 in bracket play, finishing in third place and failing to advance to the knock-out round.
While being knocked out of the tournament was a disappointment, it could not tarnish the overall excitement of taking part in an international tournament. For Sanders, as well as many of the boys and parents who made the trip, the biggest thrill was the Donosti Cup opening ceremonies. And it wasn’t just the march around the stadium but the entire experience in the hours leading up to it.
“The entire experience caught us off guard,” Sanders said. “There were tons of chants and songs by all the different teams. It started in the cafeteria with teams chanting at each other. A group of 200-300 Americans eventually gathered together and joined the chant battle. Chants continued outside the stadium while we were in line. The boys invented a chant for our club and began to sing it.”
The excitement grew as the night went on. “Walking around the stadium was awesome,” said Sanders. “Seeing the kids’ faces was my personal best memory. Their adrenalin was maxed out, and I’m sure they felt as though the 10,000 people in the stadium were cheering for them. Later that night I overheard one of the boys telling another, ‘This was the best night of my life.’ Though they don’t have many life experiences yet, that was an awesome thing to hear.”
Of course, not all of the time was spent on the field. In Barcelona the boys and their families had an opportunity to visit La Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous churches in the world and UNESCO World Heritage Site. They also visited the Olympic Village and the Olympic Stadium where the 1992 Summer Olympics were held. Of course the highlight for the soccer-mad Californians was the tour of Camp Nou and the FC Barcelona Museum and the opportunity to stock up on Barça gear.
In San Sebastián the tournament took up most of their attention, but they were able to visit Anoeta, the home stadium of Real Sociedad. After their final match the Aztecs were able to fit in a day trip across the border for some shopping in southern France.
For Sanders, the trip confirmed all of the benefits of international travel that he had experienced as a youth.
“For most players, an international trip feeds their love for the game and expands their dreams and hunger for success,” he said. “When a kid gets to tour a professional stadium, see the love Europeans have for soccer or even see the level of some of the teams, it exposes American soccer players to a whole new world. I also feel that since the highest level that most of these kids will reach is college that it’s important they experience many things along the way that both build character and provide great memories. An international trip nails that aspect.”
“This trip was a life changing experience,” said young Rylan Ortiz, one of the Aztecs players who made the trip. “It is so amazing how soccer unites people and how soccer can create unforgettable memories. I came into this trip and made some new brothers and met some amazing people and played at the highest level of soccer in my life. I would give anything to relive these moments in my life.”
Sanders is convinced that the Aztecs’ trip would not have been as successful without the assistance of van Zijl and Premier International Tours. “Loek and his team were top notch, and we couldn’t have done this without them,” he asserted. “We chose to go through them for many reasons but we felt there were two main things that separated them from the rest: credibility and efficiency. The list of different organizations that choose to go through Premier International Tours for their tours was impressive.”
“Also they were very efficient,” Sanders continued. “Everything that we requested was taken care of right away. Loek Van Zijl, Mike Stebbins and the Premier International Tours staff followed through with everything they said they were going to do. If I’m going to encourage parents to invest thousands of dollars I need to make sure that I work with a company that keeps their word and Premier International Tours does that.”
“I always say ‘it takes two to tango’ when it comes to arranging the prefect tour,” said van Zijl of working with Sanders and Central California Aztecs. “We, of course, as the organizer are a major part of the success of the tour, but the club staff – managers and coaches – are extremely important as well. Ray and Rachel Sanders were committed and very organized. So, you can say we tangoed very well together and that made the tour a huge success.”
Van Zijl fondly remembers something he received from one of the Aztecs players. “Getting a quote and pictures from one of their players made my year!” he said. “And on top of this, both Rachel and Ray are very nice people and I wish them and their young family the best of luck with making their club a great club. I am already looking forward working with them next year.”
Although this was the first time Sanders had taken a team on an international trip, it won’t be the last. With a philosophy of putting every player into an environment that will help them reach their highest potential, this type of experience is a key element.
“Every player should be pushed and held to the standard of the next level above them,” said Sanders, explaining his coaching philosophy. “I think it’s our responsibility to hold each player to this standard and provide the environment for this to happen. There is only one Messi and one Ronaldo, and certain players will have tremendous success with or without us. I think if we can help a player make Varsity Soccer a year earlier, play Division 1 instead of Division 2 and so on, then that’s when a coach or club is a success.”
If success is measured in memories made and dreams realized, Central California Aztecs have hit the jackpot.