EDINBURG, Texas – A former professional soccer player who travels the world to see soccer matches says the Rio Grande Valley has great potential as a hotbed for the sport.
Matthew Jordan is senior vice president and general manager of Houston Dynamo, a Major League Soccer team. RGV FC Toros, the Valley’s United Soccer League Championship club, is a feeder team for the Houston Dynamo.
“There is so much potential in this region,” Jordan told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“What really stands out to me every time I travel to the Valley is there are just good people really committed to working together to make a difference in people’s lives. I travel the world, I travel the country, that is rare. It is something that is very unique to this part of the country.”
Jordan, who has played soccer professionally in the United States and Denmark, made his comments in an interview following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new state-of-the-art campus for IDEA Toros, the academy associated with RGV FC Toros. The campus will provide an education for 6th to 12th grade students.
Asked how big soccer could become in the Valley, Jordan said: “This is just the beginning. The future is bright for these young student athletes.”
Asked what he thought of the new IDEA campus and the training facilities for RGV FC Toros, Jordan said: “It is world class. What an environment for these kids to learn in. You just feel the positive energy in the building, it is a great collaborative environment.”
Jordan said he had one overriding message for the students at IDEA Toros.
“The real resounding message I heard today that I want to pass on to the kids is, sports is an important part of everything you do but your education is something that no one can ever take away from you. You cannot play sports forever. Your commitment to education is your No. 1 priority.”
In addition to Jordan, the ribbon-cutting ceremony also attracted Mike Woitalla, an Oakland, California, based soccer journalist who writes for Soccer America. Tom Torkelson, co-founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools, interviewed both Jordan and Woitalla during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Torkelson also interviewed Colombian-border former professional soccer player Rafael ‘Rafa’ Amaya, who is now academic director for RGV FC Toros. Torkelson said Amaya is known throughout the professional soccer community in the United States. He said students at IDEA Toros should appreciate what Amaya is doing for them.
“Coach Rafa is making phone calls and texting and tweeting and getting in touch with people he has known for 20, 30 years, who are now coaching teams across the country. He is giving you all exposure and access to more opportunities to play Division One, Division Two or Division Three soccer on a full scholarship,” Torkelson said.
Amaya has played soccer professionally in the United States, South America, Japan and China. In his remarks, Amaya said the classroom has to come first, second and third for the IDEA students.
“When a college coach talks to us, the first question they ask is what type of kid they are. What is their GPA, are they disciplined. They have not asked me one question about the soccer field. Are they good teammates, are they faithful, do they represent themselves well. They know what type of players we are going to build.”
The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Amaya following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, as he looked out over the academy’s outdoor training pitches.
Asked how big soccer can become in the Valley, Amaya pointed out that Brownsville native Diego Rosas has already been called up for a national soccer camp and is ranked in the top 40 in the nation for his age group.
“We have seven or eight kids coming up behind Diego that are in the national pools. We are very close. I think we will pack the stadium when you have 70 or 80 percent of the U.S. team from the Valley.”
Asked if the Valley might one day boast a Major League Soccer team, Amaya said: “I do not know if MLS will come, based on size and where you are, but definitely the USL is a good place and Mr. Cantu has done well establishing this facility. He is a philanthropist who helps a lot of people. He does not know soccer like he does basketball or baseball. But, I do not think any of this would be here if we did not think this is the start of something big.”
Amaya was referring to McAllen businessman Alonzo Cantu, who helped develop RGV FC Toros’ training facility and nearby HEB Stadium.
Amaya said every student in the IDEA Toros academy would leave with a ‘D’ coaching license, another example of how education comes first with RGV FC Toros.
Amaya said he recently went on a soccer coaching course in Bilbao, Spain. “Bilbao reminded me of the Valley because it is on the border between Spain and France. It is like a country within its own country,” Amaya said.
He said attitudes have changed among soccer players coming through in the Valley.
“Before, every soccer player in the Valley looked south, to go and play in Mexico. My position is to make sure they go north to college and get an education, and, the ones that are good go on to make the national teams.”
As an example of the Valley’s potential as a hotbed for soccer, Amaya said he would be be taking six local kids to a national team camp. “With USL, we play in the top one percent, the top 20,000 kids in the country. These kids get seen by five hundred college coaches.”
Amaya added that the best Valley soccer players stand a great chance of success because they are, generally speaking, “technically gifted and creative.”
Nomads no more
The new IDEA Toros campus sits behind HEB Park in Edinburg. Previously, the soccer academy students had a nomadic life, being taught at other IDEA schools and training on basketball courts. Indeed, the original tie-up between RGV FC Toros and IDEA started in 2016. The idea was to provide players with a rigorous academic program that would prepare them to balance academics and athletics as future collegiate athletes.
Viviane Castillo-Manzano, IDEA Toros College Prep Principal, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“Toros has always been about determination and passion. About making the most of the opportunities presented,” she said.
Castillo-Manzano said the partnerships IDEA Toros has built up have paid off. She noted a tie-up with a school in San Antonio that is offering female soccer players from the Valley an opportunity to play at the highest level in the state and the country.
She noted with pride that the Toros has became part of the US Soccer Development Academy, the highest academic platform for the sport in the country. “It is reserved for the top one percent of soccer athletes in the country. We are one of only eight academies in the United States, the only south to San Antonio,” Castillo-Manzano said.
She also noted that IDEA Toros has been awarded an ‘A’ rating for the second time in a row. “Half of our graduating class went on to play collegiate soccer. Twenty-five percent of our students attended highly selected colleges and universities,”Castillo-Manzano said.
Castillo-Manzano said 100 percent of IDEA Toros students from the school’s the first three graduating classes went on to college. She predicted 2020 will be an “historical year” for her school, pointing out that the Mexican Women’s national team recently trained at the Toros campus.
She added: “The impact of finally seeing our name on a building, our mascot on a field, stamps ‘we are home’ on to our hearts.”
Credit to Bert Garcia
In his remarks, IDEA CEO Torkelson said: “This is a celebration of this building but it is also a little bit like career day for our students. Because we do not often get such a great cross section of folks from the professional sports world, engineers, architects, contractors.”
Torkelson gave credit to former RGV FC Toros President Bert Garcia for coming up with the idea of an academy for Valley students who want to pursue a career in soccer. Torkelson said Garcia called him when he was looking for advice on setting up an academy. He said Garcia was not making much headway in discussions with a local school district.
“Bert Garcia said, we want to have a world class soccer development program for high school students and maybe even middle school students one day. On top of that we want it to be a seamlessly integrated experience, soccer, nutrition, training, academics, all day long at the same facility. We need flexibility. When our students are going off to tournaments for a week or eight days or ten days, we need the school to travel with the students.”
Torkelson said Garcia did not realize IDEA was piloting a new school design model that was 100 percent online in terms of the curriculum platform but also had teachers teaching in a building.
“I thought, gosh, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could send that bus up to Colorado or over to Florida with a bus full of students and a teacher and a laptop, so that, literally, the learning and the hard work never, ever, has to stop.”
Interviewed by the Rio Grande Guardian after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Torkelson paid tribute to the vision of Bert Garcia again, along with investor and philanthropist Cantu.
“It was Bert Garcia and, of course, Alonzo Cantu who were very innovative and creative. They wanted to merge this world class development academy, a national calibre program.”
Torkelson noted that most soccer development academies are connected to a professional team.
“Obviously we have the RGV FC Toros down here and this development academy is connected to the Toros. But, they were missing the education component. They wanted to make sure that when kids were gone for a week or two weeks at tournaments that they would be able to keep learning. That we could send a teacher with them, they could take their laptop, they could keep getting through their advanced place in math or English. It has been a great partnership ever since.”
Torkelson added: “This is another example of great things starting off in the Valley, getting exported to other parts of the state, which I am really proud of.”