900 Kids Play Army Soccer in Watsonville

ALL STARS–Youth of all ages benefit from the soccer program in Watsonville. Professional soccer player Jose Fuentes (l) is coach for the teams.

by Judy Vaughn – 

Soccer is alive and well in Watsonville, Calif., and The Salvation Army is at the heart of it.

It’s not as though Major Jesus Santos has a gymnasium for youth programs in the community. He hasn’t. And he certainly doesn’t own a soccer field. Yet, if you ask how many young people are in The Salvation Army International Soccer School, the answer is immediate and irrefutable–900!

And if you ask who is the coach and role model athlete for the kids, the answer is immediate: “El Pana!” “Pana”–the nickname for Jose Fuentes, sports coordinator and professional soccer player who came to Dallas, Texas, in 1993 with the National Selection of Panama for the Gold Cup and now gives his full time energy to a part-time Salvation Army job to make this project work.

Fuentes has participated in the Super League of “Deportivo Imperio Club” and played with the Newark Club, Santa Cruz Surf, Interregnal Soccer League, and the Jaugars. He recently was one of 32 players who classified for the San Jose Clash, but only four non-Americans can be on the team. Since he missed the final cut, he’s given his heart and soul to the kids of Watsonville.

The soccer project was Santos’ dream, one that grew far beyond his original open air invitation to an apartment building complex of families with kids. “In ten minutes we had our first team,” he says. “And within a few weeks we had 20.”

The concept mushroomed–almost as if it were a town full of soccer players just waiting for a new league. What was needed was a coordinating force to find new playing fields, to encourage fund-raising car washes to buy team T shirts, an office to keep track of statistics, invite competitions, arrange tourneys and transportation, reward success and build pride in kids and families who participate. The Salvation Army plays that role, asking a token $10 to cover paper work and expenses. Santos has arranged for teams to play in gymnasiums, parks and school yards all over town.

He sees this as a natural extension of Adventure Corps and other Salvation Army youth activities, and invites other Salvation Army units to bring teams to Watsonville to compete.

Other people have tried other sports in this city, according to Santos and his son Joel, who assists. “Pros for Youth” tried football. “It was the right idea,” says Santos, “but for this community at this time, the wrong sport.” Soccer, he says is today what baseball was here 15 years ago. Eighty-six percent of the people in the area are Hispanic. Most of Watsonville’s families come from Mexico or other countries where soccer is very popular. When the kids get involved, the parents do too. They know soccer. They grew up with it.

So in the evenings and presumably after homework, the soccer fields are filled with kids using their heads, elbows, arms, knees, feet–every part of their body except their hands–to score points. It’s an equal opportunity sport. Soccer doesn’t discriminate against size. You don’t have to be tall, big, aggressive or fast. Teamwork and coordination are more highly valued than individual stardom and the emphasis is on participation, not knocking other players out. Because every player is involved in nearly every play, soccer requires a tremendous physical workout from every person who plays.

So how much time does that leave for TV and movies? Not much, according to Rosario Reyna, a corps cadet, whose father was her first coach and sees all her games. She says all her friends play soccer on weekends and from 5:00 to 7:00 most nights. After games, teammates eat out to celebrate a win or commiserate a loss. Young people who may never have known about The Salvation Army learn about other corps activities, and as a result the corps is growing.

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