“I was one of the lucky ones,” says Ayala-Hil, who went on to captain Cal Berkeley and is now head coach of San Francisco State University and the PDL’s San Francisco Glens, for which he also coaches a youth team.
Ayala-Hil, now 32 years old, played for Bayamon FC in Puerto Rico and German lower division club Luckenwalde FSV 63 before embarking on his coaching career.
Ayala-Hil’s childhood soccer …
I grew up in East Palo Alto, not the same as Palo Alto. Growing up as a kid, I was out there wanting to have fun. I was fortunate because my grandma would pretty much raise me because my mom was working all of the time. My grandma worked in an apartment complex, and there were a bunch of kids who lived in the complex, too.
We had a basketball court that was half dirt and half pavement, and that's where we played. We used the basketball pole and the tree as another goal. And we would play all the time. That's where, when someone was visiting someone in the complex, they saw me and a couple other kids, and asked if we wanted to play with his AYSO team.
In the early 1990s, East Palo Alto -- not to be confused with Palo Alto, on the other side of Highway 101 -- was dubbed America’s murder capital as gang and drug warfare fueled the nation’s highest per capita murder rate. (The crime rate has gone down dramatically in recent years, but it remains one of the poorest cities in the Bay Area.)
There weren't any leagues in East Palo Alto back then [in 1992]. There was nothing. You had to go to Menlo Park or something. The only structured soccer was the middle school leagues, and that was it. So, we had to play AYSO in another city.
Ayala-Hil was born in the USA, the son of El Salvadoran parents. His stepfather emigrated from Mexico.
My family would drive to Palo Alto to play pickup soccer in another city. All of the grownups were playing, and we were playing on the sides. And as we got older, those who were good enough would join in with the adults.
Javier Ayala-Hil (right), with his brother David.
East Palo Alto is known as being on the other side of tracks – actually a freeway – of Silicon Valley. When Ayala-Hil was an ambitious young soccer player, there were fewer clubs on the Bay Area peninsula that scholarshipped lower income kids, but the proximity to wealthier areas did help.
We go back to access to opportunity and some luck. I was in a unique demographic because I didn't grow up in a good neighborhood, but I could drive 10 minutes and be in a completely different environment.
I didn't know any better growing up as a kid with the access I had. I was lucky because a family took me in. I had a family that coached the team and told me to not worry about the fees, as long as I was doing better in school.
I was forced to get into Boy Scouts, which was something I did not want to do. My mom told me if I wanted to play soccer this was something I had to do. It was to basically distract me as much as possible from the environment I was in.
Because the reality is, most of my friends, because of where they grew up, didn't turn out so well. It's tough, it's very, very difficult to look at the big picture and try and get out of your situation.
I didn't see it that way either, I just wanted to play soccer. And I had a mother who was very, very strict, so that helped. I had that family who helped me out financially.
And then ODP came around, OK great, I'll go try out for ODP, oh wait, $1,000, $2,000 because of the travel fees. The family helped me, but they also asked me to write a letter to all the other families on the team and ask for money.
Was that difficult?
Yeah, I think so. I was getting older, and it was like, "Oh man, I have to ask these people for money." It wasn't easy, it was a little embarrassing. I got to know the families pretty well, so it wasn't as bad, but it was still tough.
Depending on other people to finance your youth soccer creates a unique situation. Ayala-Hil says he didn’t feel extra pressure to excel, but …
... Staying on with the team -- that was the toughest part. I was 13, 14, 15, playing ODP players who were trying to recruit me to their better team. At that point I was on a silver level team. My friends were playing on the team for fun. My development was going to deteriorate in the long term. I wanted to leave but there was a loyalty factor.
And if I was going to leave, who was going to help me out? I was embarrassed to let them know, yes, you're covering my basic club fees, but I also need help with playing with ODP. I had a talk with the family about it and they said even if I left they would understand and keep helping me. They were looking out for me; I was very lucky to be in that situation. Most people aren't going to be helped out like that. It's just the reality.
In 2004, Ayala-Hil enrolled at Cal Berkeley, one of the world’s most esteemed universities, and played for Coach Kevin Grimes. He captained the Bears his senior year of 2007. In 2014, he started serving as an assistant to Grimes with a team that included goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann while also coaching youth ball at Lamorinda SC. When he first arrived on the Berkeley campus in 2004 …
It wasn't super unique for me. We actually had a couple guys who were in similar situations. There were some guys from LA who may have not been sponsored by families, but it was more their club structure that helped them out with ODP stuff.
When I got there, I was maybe different than some of the guys and probably didn't fit right in with the team because of the demographics and environment I grew up in. I also met other players who maybe weren't even Latino but were white and came from a middle or lower-class family.
They were going through similar stuff, too. So, it was kind of like, "Maybe I can relate to this guy." Sure, enough we're good friends to this day. At the same time, Berkeley opened my eyes and I was more receptive to how the world works.
Reflecting on his own experiences in the pay-to-play world of American youth soccer, and the current state …
I think it goes back to our culture and how we like soccer. As the game matures, you get more people involved, and we get to a point where we're thinking about money.
For example, if you're in this part of the country, you can charge this amount of money, and people will come and it's turning into a big business.
It’s gotten out of proportion, but I don't think it's going away. These days there are clubs that have enough money where they can give scholarships to people with need. At the end of the day, you're only going to have a certain amount of players who you can give that access to.
Javier Ayala-Hil (Photo courtesy of SFSU SID)
Is there a solution to pay-to-play and creating more opportunities for children in under-served communities to get into the pathway of elite soccer?
The reality is there are a couple options.
One is, for a person like me who grew up in that environment, at some point in my lifetime, I need to be going back to my community or a community similar to one I grew up in, because I understand how difficult it is for those players to get that sort of opportunity. We just need more people who are willing to go back into their community. That would change things, but it's hard. You can go to those communities and develop players and turn out some pretty good players long term, in my opinion.
You're not only dealing with the soccer aspect of it, though, you're potentially dealing with so many other factors. Where these families come from, issues with them working, distractions off the field. You're taking on a lot of baggage. People know that, and I think that's why some hesitate to get into those communities.
I've seen some good things, though. In Southern California, there are some clubs that are doing great things. FC Premier and FC Golden State have guys at the top and their philosophy is that's it's free to play there. Sure enough, within two or three years, they're some of the strongest teams in the area because they have the infrastructure that gives access to kids.
On the importance of unstructured, unorganized, street soccer …
I think it's the missing piece. You look around the world -- South America, even in Europe, in France -- most of that World Cup-winning French team were playing in the boroughs of France.
They learned to play on the streets and in the neighborhood until a youth academy picks them up. These academies, at the highest level, are only training three or four times a week at a young age. But those kids go home and keep on playing. You hear these stories, over and over again, about how these players are the best players in the world.
I really do feel that's essential for a player's development. We live in a society where everything is very structured, in terms of, “Where am I picking my son up, when am I driving him off.”
And when you live in a bad neighborhood you can't go to a park because it's just too dangerous. I still remember that while I could play in my apartment complex, I couldn't play at the park. You just couldn't.
Ayala-Hil became head coach of San Francisco State in 2016 and in his second season guided the Gators to the CCAA playoffs for the first time since 1978. Despite a rich soccer culture within the Latino community, there a relatively few Latino head coaches in NCAA soccer. On Latinos in college soccer …
The number of Latino coaches in the NCAA is pretty low. Especially considering that the percentage of Latino players in NCAA Division II is quite high, like in my conference. I'm not sure about Division I, but I'm sure the number is a lower there
But, yeah there are just a handful of them [Latino coaches] and to me it's how you can relate to players. Whether it's a certain environment or just race and how you can relate to a coach. It can be difficult at times for some players.
Even with the percentage of the Latino players, higher than what I would've originally thought, you would still think, in my eyes, that there should be more. There should be more at the college level because they're good enough to play.
It's such a complex dynamic with scouting, academics, and the lack of support from counselors or club coaches. Maybe a player is good enough to play college, but he has no idea he has access to that, or in his head he's already thinking it's too much. Their parents probably have no clue about college soccer.
I saw that in high school, where I was even at a point where my stepfather was telling me to not waste my time trying to play college soccer when I wasn't going to go pro.
He would tell me to get a job and help the family instead. I had plenty of friends who stopped playing because families would tell them that they needed to get a job to help out the family.