After Rio Grande Valley Toros’ Youth Academy Director Rafael Amaya gave me a tour of the new IDEA Public School on the U.S. Soccer DA club’s grounds in Edinburg, Texas, he said it was time to visit the Doctor.
THE DOCTOR WHO HATES PAY-FOR-PLAY. We followed Dr. Dynio Honrubia, M.D., Neonatologist, through the Women’s Hospital at Renaissance’s NICU. The babies in incubators included a girl born after only 22 weeks who weighed less than 1 pound, a boy receiving life-saving treatment to get his lungs going, and a tiny girl who had successful abdominal surgery in the morning.
“This area had the highest neonatal mortality rate in the country,” said Honrubia, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley from Southern California in 2007, as he walked us through the NICU. “The Department of Health and Human Services told this hospital system that they weren't going to allow Natal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) to be built because the outcomes were so awful. But they approved the plans for this NICU. … And we turned this whole thing around. This is one of the safest places to deliver babies in the world.”
Honrubia looked around the unit and said, “These nurses are the reason. The Valley is rich in human resources. The nurses are phenomenal. The families are great. They're just poor.”
In the early 2000s, before WHR’s NICU, the only babies like the ones we saw who would have survived were the very few with parents wealthy enough to move out of the Valley for deliveries.
“A similar thing was happening with soccer,” said Honrubia, whose mother emigrated from Puerto Rico and whose father, an immigrant from Spain, was among Southern California's youth club soccer pioneers. “The problem was the exclusion of poor children from the opportunities. I hate pay-for-play.”
Soccer is the most popular sport in the Rio Grande Valley – a region of 1.4 million in the extreme south of Texas that includes cities like Edinburg, McAllen and Brownsville. The population is about 90 percent Latino. Honrubia, whom Sigi Schmid recruited for his UCLA soccer team but who opted to play water polo for the Bruins, coached his son’s team after arriving in Texas.
“What I observed was that the children who were being given the opportunity to have grass on the fields, to have uniforms, a league that had a schedule, to have lit fields -- those kids were the minority of the children of the Rio Grande Valley who could afford that,” he says. “And the majority of the children of the Valley who could not afford that were still being subjected to a pay-for-play. But their pay-for-play was, give me five dollars for the referee, give me two dollars for this, one dollar for that.
“So, they were taking the little bit of money that these families had, but they were doing it a dollar at a time. And they weren't providing these kids with any infrastructure to play and be safe. They would play in abandoned warehouses that literally had cement fields.
“I decided that was unacceptable.”
By now we'd settled in Honrubia’s office, where he met Amaya five years ago because Rio Grande Valley FC owner Alfonzo Cantu had asked Honrubia to interview Amaya as part of the hiring process for the club's academy staff.
Honrubia, with another parent coach, Eric Jarvis, had created an extraordinary youth team of Valley boys, and covered the costs. They traveled to prestigious Texas youth tournaments where their performances confirmed Honrubia's high assessment of the Valley boys' skills.
“So then Coach Rafa came,” said Honrubia. “Yes, he has a passion for soccer. It’s his life, he’s a pro, but it takes more than that. You have to have empathy and a passion for caring for underserved kids. That is Coach Rafa's speciality. And that's what it takes here. Coach Rafa has been a rock caring for these underserved kids. And because of that, almost everyone of the kids from our original team is still in the program."
moved from Colorado five years ago to head the RGV FC Toros' youth academy and serve as the club's USL team's assistant coach to then-head coach Wilmer Cabrera. The USL Championship RGV FC
Toros, a Houston Dynamo affiliate, are now head-coached by Gerson Echeverry.
THE BUSINESSMAN WHO LAUNCHED THE TOROS. Alonzo Cantu, the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico, was born in McAllen, Texas. He lived in Mexico during parts of his childhood, and at times picked grapes in California alongside his parents.
He has been named among "The Most Powerful Texans" by Texas Monthly.
Cantu’s parents left the fields after successfully building a house led to their launch of a small construction company. After embarking on a degree in pharmacy at the University of Houston, Alonzo Cantu switched to its business college aiming for a career in banking. Ultimately, he followed his father’s footsteps and became a builder.
He's now the CEO & president of Cantu Construction & Development Company, the chairman of Lone Star National Bank, and he launched with Rio Grande Valley physicians the Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance, which includes WHR and its NICU. Which is how he met Honrubia.
Cantu is also the owner of the RGV FC Toros. In 2015, he had called Honrubia from a meeting in Florida and asked him if he should go ahead with the USL venture.
“I said, ‘Sign it. I’ll be your first season-ticket holder,” said Honrubia.
Cantu had enjoyed watching Honrubio’s team play and as the Toros added the youth academy component, Cantu enlisted Honrubia. Hence the interview with Amaya.
“I didn’t know it was an interview!” Amaya said. “I just thought they wanted me to see the hospital. But when I went home, I told my wife, 'This is meant to be.' And she agreed to relocate to Texas.”
Honrubia’s team became the foundation of the Toros’ academy, which launched in 2016 and in 2018 earned U.S. Soccer Development Academy status -- no small feat considering its isolated location. Honrubia's team was the first youth team to train at the Toros’ academy – providing the high-quality facilities and pathway Honrubia and Jarvis had hoped for them.
THE YOUNG RGV PLAYER WHO MADE THE U-14 NATIONAL TEAM POOL. I asked Diego Rosas to describe an early childhood soccer experience. He said his mom would drop him off at a gym on her way to work, and he would play in a tournament all day long. Usually his mom would retrieve him on the way home from work. If it didn’t go all day, he'd alert his grandmother to get him.
A tournament, with referees and coaches?
“No, just kids,” Rosas said.
Zero adults. The boys would form teams and create their own competitions. On weekends, he would play several games with various teams that did have coaches and refs.
In March 2019, Rosas was among 80 players selected for U.S. Soccer’s U-14 national team Central Region ID camp – one of three regional camps from which 60 were invited to the USYNT U-14 National ID Camp. Rosas made that cut as well. He is one of the boys that Honrubia and Jarvis recruited for their team that enabled the Toros’ impressive academy launch.
Rafael Amaya and Diego Rosas, part of the 2019 U.S. U-14 youth national team pool, joined Toros from the outset and attends IDEA Toros College Preparatory.
THE ARIZONA KID WHO BECAME A TEXAS LAWYER. Eric Jarvis grew up in Tucson, Arizona, low-income housing where most of his free time was spent playing soccer. A father of one of the boys saw syringes in the grass they played on. So he turned the group into a team that could join a local league with a safe playing space. Only one other boy had a father in the household, said Jarvis, so he was enlisted to be the assistant coach. The cohesion that they'd cemented from all their play turned them into highly successful team and Jarvis landed at Yavapai College, where he won a 1992 NJCAA Men’s Division I national championship.
From there he earned a scholarship at University of Texas–Pan American in Edinburg, which in 2013 merged into the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. After getting his law degree, he started a practice in McAllen, and hooked up with Honrubia when they were coaching their sons’ team.
“We decided we were going to eliminate the money from the equation,” Honrubia said. “On a microscopic level, what we doing became the Toros.”
The McAllen–Edinburg–Mission metropolitan area of the Rio Grande Valley lies south of Austin (275 miles), Houston (293 miles) and San Antonio (228). Driving north out of the Rio Grande Valley through Texas requires stopping for inspection at United States Border Patrol interior checkpoints in Falfurias or Sarita.
English Overview Rio Grande Valley, Texas German Überblickkarte Countys+Landschaften Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Creative Commons)
THE TALENT FROM THE COLONIAS. The south Texas equivalents of favelas are called colonias. Home to half a million Texans, according to U.S. News and World Report, they lie outside city limits. That denies them access to most public services and basic infrastructure. Paved roads, electricity and sewage systems are often lacking. Young soccer talent abounds.
Growing up in a Mexican-American culture, the children usually have parents, uncles, older brothers and/or grandparents who are avid soccer fans. Soccer is one of the few recreations available. It's free play, without adults stifling creativity. It's competitive. And it's the dribbling, the skills on the ball, and flair that get peer admiration.
Kids spending an extraordinary amount of free time playing in a "street soccer" environment has long been cited as a missing ingredient as the USA strives to join the world powers. It's been in abundance in the Rio Grande Valley. But how does an 11-year-old boy with potential for greatness in the Rio Grande Valley climb the soccer ladder in the USA?
Until U.S. Soccer accepted RGV FC Toros into its Development Academy, the mainstream youth soccer that's requisite for a player's rise was geographically and economically inaccessible. The cost blocked access to soccer in the affiliated leagues that the area did offer.
That's what had inspired Honrubia and Jarvis to scour the Valley for most promising talent.
“So, me and this lawyer who grew up in low-income housing started driving around the Valley,” Honrubia said. “Jarvis would drive a Porsche into the colonias. He'd park, and we’d watch these kids play on the streets. On dirt roads.”
Half of the players they brought in came from the colonias.
“They're housing projects that mimic favelas in that there's no foundation for the houses to exist,” Honrubia said. “So, there's no electricity, there's no running water, there's no streets, but dirt roads. There are homes with no bathrooms. This poverty is extreme poverty. The worst poverty in Texas.”
The deal they made with the players was:
Commit. ... You don’t have to pay a penny. ... Never miss a practice without an excuse. ... Show us your grades every six weeks. ... Call us if there’s a problem.
Honrubia recounts one of those calls, when a boy alerted him to his absence because his asthma flared up.
“I’m coming over," said Honrubia. "I drove my car into colonia after practice and there he was with his medicine and with his nebulizer. But with no electricity to do a nebulizer treatment.”
IDEA Public Schools
provides round-trip bus transportation for IDEA Toros College Preparatory students, many whom play for the Toros' academy program, from around the Rio Grande Valley. The school sits in the center of
Toros' facility, which is adjacent to the H-E-B Stadium, home of the Houston Dynamo's USL affiliate, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros.
THE COACH WHO FOUND A PERFECT FIT. About four years after Honrubia and Jarvis embarked on their quest to expose to the Valley's youth soccer talent to the mainstream, Cantu's Toros' venture began. After connecting with Cantu, Honrubia found another kindred spirit in Rafael Amaya.
Born in Colombia, Amaya moved to New Jersey in his mid-teens to reunite with his father. He attended the Pele Soccer Camps run by Long Island University coach Arnie Ramirez, who landed Amaya for his LIU team. Fellow LIU alums include Venezuela-born Giovanni Savarese, currently Portland Timbers coach, and Colombia-born Jorge Acosta, an LIU teammate of Amaya's who played for the USA. Amaya's pro playing career included A-League ball with the Colorado Foxes and the San Jose's MLS inaugural season squad in 1996, when he led the team with 200 community appearances, and the Colorado Rapids.
When Amaya coached Colorado youth soccer, always with an effort to include players from underserved communities, players he coached included Roger Espinoza, Mehdi Ballouchy and Khiry Shelton.
"In most cities that I played pro I was always involved in working with inner-city programs and kids that never had the funds," said Amaya. "The top talent usually cannot make it in America. Knowing that this would be an MLS and USL partnership made me feel it was time to make a move to a place where we can make a difference and help open pathways for these kids. Kids who love the game, are very technical, and deserve opportunities."
While Amaya was watching the smooth touches and crisp passing of a Toros team, he revealed another reason why he was so attracted to this project. A player scored after swiftly dribbling past a defender outside penalty area and evading another with a few tricky touches: "You have to be a street player to do that."
IDEA Toros College Prep principal Viviane Castillo-Manzano with the RGV FC Academy coaching
THE PRINCIPAL INSPIRED BY HER SCHOOL BUS-DRIVING DAD. Viviane Castillo-Manzano's father drove one of the school buses that served a Rio Grande Valley IDEA School. She spent three years as a second grade dual-language teacher in the nearby city of Donna, but for over a year her father kept insisting she move to IDEA. Castillo-Manzano took his advice 14 years ago, served in various teaching and counseling roles before becoming principal of the Toros College Prep.
An educational component would be crucial for the Toros Academy to meet its goals, which included preparing children for college while enabling players to balance the logistics of school work with the demanding training commitment. After approaching the Edinburg Independent School District for a partnership came up empty, they reached out to IDEA Public Schools. Founded by Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama in 2000, it now operates a network of more 90 charter schools. The Toros school is IDEA's first sports collaboration, but several pro teams have reached out about replicating the Toros model.
After three and a half year of temporary classrooms, the Toros' on-site school building, which includes a mini-field in the courtyard, opened early this year. IDEA buses provide transportation for students, for grades six through 12, who come from throughout the valley. About 80 percent are part of the soccer program, which includes girls teams, non-DA teams and high school league teams.
Castillo-Manzano likes the sports aspect because it motivates the students.
"They come for soccer but stay for the academics," says Castillo-Manzano. The players must stay above a 3.2 GPA to participate, academic progress is constantly checked, and teachers and coaches are in close contact. For longer trips, a teacher accompanies the team. For shorter ones, study halls are also part of the schedule and teachers track the work online.
In the short time since the Toros academy launched, several players have already moved on to college ball and all of the graduates have landed in college. That's even though most of the students come from communities and families not familiar with the college process -- or have never considered college accessible.
"It's about shifting mindset," says Castillo-Manzano. "Part of the shift is us showing students that college can be affordable, and most of the money is coming from academics. We show them, blocking out the names, other students' [financial] award letters. There have been a couple cases were the amount was more, but most soccer scholarships don't exceed $5,000. For academics you can get $28,000."
Paul Leese, coach University of Texas-RGV, one of only four Texas men's D1 programs, has long aimed to stock his team with local talent and he's particularly pleased with the Toros' program, with its college prep component, and already has three alum on his roster. College coaches from around the country are now looking at the region thanks much to Toros' U.S. Soccer DA status and the assurance that Toros players are college eligible and academically prepared. This while also providing a pathway to the pros, through the USL Toros and the Houston Dynamo affiliation.
After last season, RGV FC Toros Academy won the U.S. Soccer DA's Community Service Award. The players' volunteer work included, because it helps brain development in low-weight infants, reading to babies at the DHR Women's Hospital's NICU.
I like reading stories like that. I love the " I hate pay to play". Once the US has established a real culture of soccer, we can rid of play to play for you don't need it. As a matter of fact reading this article tells you that the talented kids learned their trade, their skills playing street ball. What I'm saying you don't a licensed coach to teach kids. I would say ,save your money getting a license for none of these kids learned their trade by having a licensed coach around....Zlatan is a perfect example.
It is so ironic that all these soccer associations demand coaches having a license, obviously someone is making a buck in this system for something you don't need when dealing with youth soccer development; for the phase these kids are going through has nothing to do with having a licensed coach. But the system forces you to get a license, go figure which is all part of the 'pay to play' scheme...
We have been so brainwashed in America about how soccer and youth should development that what we believe it right is really wrong and what we is wrong is the RIGHT way of doing it. In other words, we told that having told to have licensed coaches, good soccer fields, great accommodations, lots of money, fancy shoes, nice ball, well manicured fields is the develop players.
But in reality everything that we are told is bad or not helpful for youth development is good. For example, in the 3rd world or youth from poor economic area have better skills than our youth , when you consider their playing conditions are nowhere near what the rich well to do kids have. Pele played with balls made of rags that's how poor he was, and you can just imagine what he wore to play and where he learned to play. And of course you have the bleeding hearts saying "poor baby" if he only had good shoes, good fields, and good ball and some money......NEXT POST.
In the U.S. we only value institutions where you can make a profit.
if you look at the history of the proliferation of Universities in this country you can see this very clearly.
EVERYTHING is about making money, thus the "pay to play" model.
What an interesting article. I am so proud of all my LIU players contributing to the beautiful game. Proud of you Rafael Amaya.
Beautiful story. Keep up the great work Rafa.
Playing with a rag ball teaches you all about touch and feel on the ball. 80% of my game in street soccer soccer dealt with a tennisball, rubber ball, plastic ball, BUT NEVER WITH A REAL BALL for you would ruined a nice ball on the streets. Most of our development done on CONCRETE which means you learn to distinguish the different bounces a ball has when trapping, which the kids CONCENTRATE in how to trap and control a ball, how velocity of the pass due to playing on concrete. None of the kids in the street soccer days played with tennis flats but regular leather dress shoes you went to church or school with. All of this prepared the youth to concentrate on feel and touch on the ball under less than PERFECT conditions which is unlike what we want our kids to play under.
Van Hanegem stated he learned to trap, pass, dribble the ball playing in cow pastures condition type of fields. Under these types of conditions the youth are forced to think, judge, about what could happen, and be prepared for any eventuality, in other kids learned to ANTICIPATE in all manners of form for the CONDITIONS kids forced them to. NOTE, kids when playing pickUP didn't wear special colored jerseys, pennies or brought an extra T-shirt with them. This forced kids to look up and remember who is on their team. Again, it was the thinking ,preparing, looking up for their teammates of what to do next.
Today's kids don't have to look up to see who is on their team for everyone wears similar colors ..They all play on a nice fielda,nice shoes, don't have to worry about what touch to place on the ball or how it will bounce or what how to pass or dribble depending on the type of ball used...Our kids don't experience these 'insight details', experiences whereby you relate your actions with the ball, to the circumstances you play under. So much had to deal with the mental...
Kids in my days learned to read the opponents capabilities because we played on the concrete and therefore couldn't run fast. It made to learn to have eye on the skill part of the opponent, able to read the opponents capabilities with the ball. As a result I learned to read the player's offensive capabilities and how I should defend him. Under these types of conditions, LESS THAN PERFECT, a youth learns so much more and it makes it easier when playing under perfect conditions. The problem today is our youth learned to play under perfect conditions and therefore don't have to experience to think and anticipate.
Playing on concrete or in the streets or in less than perfect conditions, teaches you balance for you want to fall on concrete. Again everything you has to have a process of thinking behind. Todays, kids play on grass and don't worry about falling or hurting oneself.
In the article someone complained about playing on a huge cement field. Well one should kiss the ground for players can learn so much more playing on concrete, so many facets that you don't learn playing on nice grassy field. Always make your kids play half the practice on concrete and half on grass.... When playing on a nice grass field make them wear flats for this forces to make players think about what they otherwise they might slip and lose balance
In sum appreciate LESS THAN PERFECT CONDITIONS for youth development for they will develop much faster and better....
Thanks Mike W. for a story that has heart & soul.
Heyas Mike, muchas gracias for your article. Know what? Re Coach/Dr Honrubia, when our son was at the rec vs competitive stage of his learning our jogo bonito, I came accross the "original" Dr. Honrubia, who at the time he organized a local Real Madrid Youth Soccer Club, affiliated then with the former California Youth Soccer Association. But for reasons too long to talk about hereon, after consulting with some other friends, one who has become a stalwart cast member of a daytime tv soap opera, also a friend of Sigi Schmid, recommended to us another youth soccer club, the then Real Santa Monica Soccer Club also a CYSA-S affiliate, in fact the ONLY two youth soccer clubs in the WLA/SM area. Needless to say, the competition between the clubs was a pretty "healthy" one, highly compeitive and healthy. Now, some 30 years later, both clubs are still around although now there are more competitive clubs, from Mike Page's Westside Breakers to Raul/Jose Palomare's Autobahn S.C. But sadly, the cost factor is pretty high and fit the pay for play mold.
As for Coach Honrubia, at first I didn't make the connection until I continued reading, we knew then that Coach H was an MD - if memory serves me well - at UCLA, but I suppose that after our son's aged out, we all lost track of him, but I do want to say KUDOS AND FELICIDADES to the "new" Dr. Honrubia. As one having been deeply involved in virtually all aspects of the growth and expansion of our sport at the club, scholastic and collegiate levels, with some semi-pro and pro levels, reading about this organization, makes one proud and I only wish that it could be replicated in other parts of the country. So in closing, I just want to say to Dr. Honrubia saludos, felicidades y abrazos.
I forgot to mention several other aspects of this story, and that is the Honrubias and the Fonsecas are kindred spirits of sorts as my son's mother is also from Puerto Rico and I from Mexico City. I learned whatever soccer skills while living in Mexico City, having played on the streets, dirt fields, and even between the railroad tracks (we lived fairly close to the main railroad yards and station) in what ironically we called Colonia Guerrero. Sadly when I was brought to the US, the only fields I remember playing on - growing up in East Oakland, was a fairly large dirt American football field, in a junior high, then some parks, and my old Castlemont HS field. Sadder still is that we were being constantly chased off the "precious football/baseball fields" and were also actually forced to play kickball on a softball field on asphalt.
I see great similarity here in the combination of academics and soccer with the programs run by many European clubs. The refreshing difference here is that students need to mantain grades to remain in school, whereas the European clubs require kids to continue to be competitive soccer players to remain in the program. The combination of academics and soccer is underutilized in this country as a motivator for student accomplishment.
Very interesting and detailed article. I am already familiar with the RGV story, but this piece really opens it up. Two things strike me. First, the RGV story goes against the grain of thinking that it is the under-served inner city players that we need to unlock for soccer to reach it's potential in the USA. RGV is rural USA. Second, USL leagues and their coming academies are playing an important part in opening up small markets.
Thanks for a wonderful & inspiring story.
I grew up in Manhattan's Washington Heights section which is from about the George Washington Bridge to Ft. Tryon Park above 190 th Street. We played softball in the school yard much the way sand lot soccer is described in this article. No adults.
I became a goalkeeper at age fourteen knowing nothing about the sport and had a ten year career that included Jr. and Sr. High School, college and two years of semi-pro.
Now at age eighty four, I realize n a soccer goalkeeper training academy and specialize in working with minorities and underserved communities.
it is so important that youngsters stake charge of their own training.
To F. Lowe above, re: the history of the growth or "proliferation of Universities (sic)" IMHO you are mistaken in regards to the "proliferation" because, historically, the development of universities is centuries old, beginning in Europe, but as far as the US, during the colonial period, education was significantly important as some colonial towns even demanded that a township of perhaps 20 households had to maintain a publci school. As the colonial period grew, several major universities that now comprise what are called "Ivy League Universities," were established during the 17th and into the 18th Centuries. The growth and expansion of colleges and universities continued on throughout the expansion of the country, through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the growth and expansion of intercollegiate athletics grew to an anormous size, necessitating the proliferation of intercollegiate athletic ruling bodies (read: NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA, etc.) And as we all know, most - if not ALL - states have what are called public and private universites and colleges, including the so called "for-profit-colleges and unversities" that usally do not offer an intercollegiate athletics program, and what I think is what Mr. Lowe refers to... I think, since I've been intrinsically entwined in the public post-secondary education system for most of my life.
Lovely to see this story . Congrats to all concerned .
Unfortuneatly for soccer the affluance of USA is alive and well in most places, which in itself, creates pay to play . Also ,the demands of US Soccer if your an academy team, is a financial challange, driving the need to raise money from somewhere ,the easiest route being parents . The balance of never turning anyone away and financing the program ,is very diffecult ,not impossible however . This group seems to have found the balance and its wonderful to see .
I knew Cony and Arnie would like this :)