Rocky Delgadillo on Central Los Angeles club LAUFA's future without the Development Academy

Rocky Delgadillo, the former City Attorney of Los Angeles (2001-2009), is the founder and president of Los Angeles United Futbal Academy, a youth club serving over 500 players based in Central Los Angeles. LAUFA fielded U-13, U-14 and U-15 age groups in the Boys Development Academy until U.S. Soccer ended the DA on April 15.

Delgadillo, who was born and raised Los Angeles, played football at defensive back for Harvard before attending Columbia Law School. Prior to being elected City Attorney of Los Angeles, he served as Deputy Mayor of Economic Development under Mayor Richard Riordan.

SOCCER AMERICA: How many LAUFA boys and girls are normally practicing or playing games every week? How many are on financial assistance, and what are the club’s demographics?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We have about 20 teams now from U-8 to U-18, and about 80% are on financial assistance. About 80-85% of our players are from inner-city neighborhoods. It’s about 80% Latino, 10% African American, 5% Asian, and 5% Caucasian.

The sort of the thing that we try to assess is, "Are these families making a commitment to the future of their kids?" They don't have to be making a lot of money to do that. Do they get their kids to practice on time? And all of that kind of stuff. We help them interact with their teachers and school administrators and anybody else they interact with. That's really important to us and so generally, those families, while they struggle, they continue to move forward.

SA: What does your fundraising platform for that look like? Most youth clubs the size of LAUFA use a pay-to-play model....

ROCKY DELGADILLO: I spend a lot of time raising money, and we've been fortunate enough to get some grants from some foundations like the LA84 Foundation and the California Community Foundation. Most of it comes from some really generous donors who help out and make a real investment in the community because this program works. It gets a return.

SA: Before COVID-19 hit the United States, what types of resources was LAUFA offering its players?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We have our own clubhouse that's adorned with all of the identity of LAUFA, and it has kind of what we're trying to inspire in our kids to attain, which is a sunlit future. It's a place where kids can come in and get tutoring, get registered for playing. We often have the ability to conduct practices in Spanish and we always communicate with the parents in both languages. About 3-4 times a year, we do SAT prep and college application prep. Because that's our whole model: to try and marry soccer and education.

Most of our kids don't get to see the flight paths out of their neighborhood. What soccer does for us is that it provides a platform that allows us to clear some of those clouds away. It gives them a desire to pursue an education.

SA: How has it been for LAUFA adjusting to the new reality of COVID-19?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Luckily, we've pretty good on the technology front. It's allowed us to have access to our kids. We have our coaches talk to each other about how to improve their coaching at this time, and then we also do regular fitness sessions, about 2-3 times a week, taught by our fitness instructors. I bet you we get something around 50 kids every time. And then if people really do need help with tutoring, they can call one of our managers and they can do that either online or on the phone.

SA: Might these kids and their families be affected by COVID-19 more than others?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: A lot of these folks who we encounter are part of the underground economy. Whether that's landscaping, handyman work, cleaning homes, things like that, a lot of that has gone away. So, for a lot of our kids, it’s tough. We know because we collect their tax returns when we can because that allows us to apply for some of these grants. And we know that these families are struggling anyway, without COVID-19.

SA: Some people are expecting youth soccer participation to fall because a soccer team tumbles down the list of priorities during times of austerity. Are you expecting fewer players to return to LAUFA when it's safe to play again?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: You know what, I don't know. I actually anticipate we'll see more players.

SA: Why is that?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Well, because players who would be at other clubs where they were paying something are going to be coming to see us. I don't think there will be more soccer players in the market, but we might get a greater share of them than we've had before.

SA: Will you be able to afford that increase in players?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We'll do the best we can with the money we have. We're building a strong base of people who believe in what we're trying to do and they see the return. If a kid sticks with us, it's pretty clear that they're going to college — community college at least. Even graduating high school would've been a tough chore for these kids.

SA: Layoffs or furloughs at LAUFA because of COVID-19?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We haven't had to make any layoffs. We're currently exploring ways to compensate our coaches when they're not coaching. It'll be less than what they normally get. But we're hoping that we'll be able to weather this — maybe we'll have to do a furlough situation, hopefully that'll be for a short period of time — and by the fall we'll be in good shape and back it.

SA: Describe LAUFA's general reaction to this crisis?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Not unlike the rest of the world. A bit of shock, some melancholy, sadness, and grieving. The one platform our players had, that drove them everyday, has basically disappeared. And they don't have a good sense of when it will come back. That's generally what I think most of our kids and parents are dealing with.

The one interesting thing I noticed was that a bunch more players have logged into our HUDL account and done more film review. During the season we ask them to do that, a few of them do. They had homework and other things they were doing. But now they're going through the film with their parents and coaches, if they can. I think that's actually been a positive development.

SA: Which of your players are impacted the most?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: The older kids, definitely. Now they don't have 1) the information, 2), the destination, and they don't even know if they'll be able to play in the fall if they're going to college. So that's very challenging for those kids.

SA: When youth soccer resumes, how much of an issue would not traveling great distances to play be for the foreseeable future?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We're in a large metropolitan area and we're pretty much in the center of it. For us, it's going to be equal distance going out or people coming to us, so I think we'll be OK in terms of finding games. That would never be a challenge. The challenge will be, will there be enough fields open for us? What will be the rules and regulations? Can people come watch the games?

SA: What was the impetus to joining the Development Academy?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: We began our partnership with the DA in 2013. And the impetus was that we actually had an affiliation with another club, and we had a really talented U-14 2000 team. The other club said, "Oh, no problem, we'll have two teams in the other age groups." OK, great. And then a few weeks later they told us we'd have to commute to Orange County.

These are kids who, if they spend four hours on the freeway every day — two there, two back — it's not going to work for them. So, we were able to quickly entertain an expansion of what we had from U.S. Soccer. We had to go from two, three teams up to 10 teams, but that wasn't hard to do, because we had so many talented kids, but the question was, "How do we finance this?' That was the hard part."

But we were able to do it and our academy teams were relatively successful and we continued to expand almost every year when they went down to the 12s and up to the 15s.

SA: How was it dealing with DA regulations?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Well, I mean, look, one of the great things is that we have some extraordinarily talented coaches. We still have them. Unfortunately, though, they didn't have A-licenses. They were much better than the [U.S. Soccer] A license coaches who I hired and then fired, but what we have done is gone out and made commitments to our coaches saying, "Hey, if you get these courses and pass them, we'll pay for them." So that part we'll be able to manage.

SA: Other challenges?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: The travel was a challenge. We went to Arizona for Barca, Northern California, Seattle, Portland. If teams were on the national level, we'd go to Dallas or Indianapolis, Florida once. We kind of encouraged that, telling parents, "If you want to see your kids to be seen, you've gotta start saving up. We'll help you do fundraising, ask your brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles and everybody else to make a little contribution." So that was a challenge.

SA: Upsides to your relationship with U.S. Soccer?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Every year we would apply for scholarships and every year we would get them. We were very fortunate in that regard.

SA: What kind of scholarships?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Close to 20 players last year got financial support from U.S. Soccer. It didn't cover all of the costs, but probably half of it.

SA: How would you rate LAUFA’s relationship with U.S. Soccer at its best?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: It was a good relationship all the way through. It always could've improved. We were always sort of an odd duck from what U.S. Soccer is used to dealing with.

SA: How is that?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: All of U.S. Soccer's infrastructure is built around the pay-to-play model. The people who have been running U.S. Soccer understand that system. But then if you have a system where kids aren't paying, they're like, "What's the issue there?" So I don't think it's negative in any way shape or form, it's just hard to comprehend for them. That was always a challenge with U.S. Soccer.

SA: For example?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: They said, "get A-licensed coaches." Which we did. They said, "put a good product on the field." Which we did. They said, "regularly develop talented players." We had one of the largest numbers of kids going to national team training centers from non-MLS clubs. We became a very good resource for LA Galaxy and LAFC. We'd play them, do well, and the next year they'd take half of our teams.

We would do everything they asked us to do. And some of those things were very challenging for us, because we didn't have parents who could just ante up, right? So we'd do everything they asked us to do and then we would ask [to expand into the older age groups] and they would say, "No, we aren't going to do that."

SA: Did U.S. Soccer communicate anything to you guys about how to adjust best practices to the new reality?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: They sent us a notice to have us apply for the employment protection plan for our employees. Unfortunately, most of our coaches are independent contractors, so we didn't qualify. But, they did send that, and they sent one or two things on how to deal with the coronavirus.

SA: Was that helpful?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: As helpful as it could be.

SA: Your immediate reaction to the canceling of the DA?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Shock at first, but on the other hand, maybe this is an opportunity for us to reshape that level of elite play in our environment that we're in. For example, we have a bunch of kids who were about to get scholarships to private high schools. While it wasn't technically tied to them playing soccer, they were really good soccer players and that school wanted them to play on their soccer team. Negotiating that with U.S. soccer in the past meant individual waivers, but it was always a hassle.

SA: On the aggregate, will LAUFA do better financially without the DA?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: I can only hope that it will. The only challenge is that we're now discussing relationships in an MLS-related development league. So we have two MLS teams in LA, fantastic. But then the next closest one is Northern California and they'll probably be associated with clubs up there. And then there's Real Salt Lake. So if they're part of it we'll have to fly there. If they include the Barca academy and the USL team in Phoenix, we'll have to go there. Travel will probably be the same. Some of those other costs and rules will be different, and of course we'll lose the scholarships.

SA: What should the MLS development look like, in your opinion?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: One of the things that still needs to be vetted out is that probably — and this might work for a lot of MLS owners who have complained about how expensive it is to run their academies and how they didn't get a lot of value out of them — the older ages, U-23, U-20, U-19, U-18, whatever, play on a national level. Then the younger teams would be mostly local still at the highest level. We could still have affiliations with LAFC and the Galaxy and run their teams for them.

SA: How did your players and their families react to the end of the DA? What are you telling them? I imagine many are worried about the college coaching networks and high level of play that they expected from an DA-associated team.

ROCKY DELGADILLO: What we're telling them is what we've always said and always done: we've developed these relationships with college coaches, professional coaches, scouts, so they will continue to get that and I think they believe they will. But the biggest issue for them is, will it be considered the highest caliber? With those six teams in Southern California leaving for the ECNL, they're sort of wondering about that. But I think if we do associate with MLS, then that will be the right solution and we'll have the gravitas of association with a professional club.

SA: So, it doesn't sound like you're too keen on following suit and joining the ECNL.

ROCKY DELGADILLO: Well, we don't know yet. That could definitely be — let's say MLS changes its mind and says, 'Eh, we don't really want to do this.' Which could happen. But I think we have to be prepared for everything, though we would prefer to be associated with professional teams in Southern California. We already have relationships with LAFC on the soccer operations side, and we've always been in discussions with LA Galaxy on the same. We've had players go through both systems.

SA: A big issue with the DA was its ban on high school play. Although we don't know how the new options will affect high school participation, what's your view on that?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: This is a broader policy discussion, but we should lean into our high school and college system more. There is already an infrastructure there and a lot of these coaches who are already gifted will go and coach at the high schools and integrate into the system.

SA: U.S. Soccer stepping away from the DA. Good or bad on the aggregate?

ROCKY DELGADILLO: I see all of these things as an opportunity. Whenever there's disruption, those who have big dreams usually win. We have a bunch of kids who have big dreams. We're fortunate to have those kids and their families with us. And hopefully this is a moment that they'll be able to capture and then capture their future.

4 comments about "Rocky Delgadillo on Central Los Angeles club LAUFA's future without the Development Academy".
  1. Ric Fonseca, April 27, 2020 at 12:37 p.m.

    Congratulations/Felicidades to Mr. Delgadillo and LAUFA!!! I'd heard about LAUFA several years ago, however, being in the center/heart of the Los Angeles soccer scene, the only down side to his group is that I heard very little about it, though every now and then I'd meet some of the players.  
    Lastly, it is interesting to note that local or "central Los Angeles" community colleges are hoping to get the word on when to begin, as right in his geographical region, there are no less than five that field soccer teams, plus also no less than five D1-3 and NAIA universities.  In fact, Los Angeles City College, will be re-introducing its soccer program this fall after an almost five year absence.  I am sure that the LAUFA coaches know about all the possibilities for college-level competition - and let me tell you folks, some community college soccer programs usually give the four-year universities a run for their soccer money!!!  GO LAUFA!!!

  2. Charles Inverso, April 28, 2020 at 11:02 a.m.

    God bless Rocky Delgadillo and the entire LAUFA. I am involved in a similar club in New Jersey and there are many obstacles and setbacks. It is, however, the greatest soccer experience you could ever be part of. We will become a much better soccer nation when we make a real effort to dig in and get soccer thriving in the underserved communities. 

  3. uffe gustafsson, April 28, 2020 at 9:10 p.m.

    Small comment.
    i thought because of the covid virus.
    we and I'm talking about the soccer community been talking about the travel time that was forced upon the DA teams and others need to change and get back to something more reasonable.
    this interview sounded like back to the old ways flying all over the country. And parents are footing hugh bills to play soccer. 

  4. Mike Lynch, April 29, 2020 at 7:53 a.m.

    Excellent interview Arlo and Rocky. I think competing within a few hour circle except for periodic tourneys or championships won't hurt LAUFC at all, it will only strengthen the strong building blocks they have - club community culture, excellent coaches, engaging HS ball, not pure pay to play, etc. Clubs in states or regions like California or the southwestern US that are the size of many actual soccer talented countries in geography and population need to leverage that strength and organize and compete accordingly. 

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