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.