Merced’s soccer community won some big league attention this week with a visit by Seattle Sounders officials exploring a possible relationship with the area.
Local civic leaders and directors of the Merced Atlas Soccer Academy welcomed two representatives of the Major League Soccer franchise: Marc Nicholls, academy technical director, and Daniel Lock, head of affiliations and club partnership development.
Fernando Aguilera, president of the Merced Atlas Soccer Academy, says a potential partnership could open the door for committed support from the Sounders, which would create more opportunities for youth soccer players in the area. The Sounders, he said, have the best instructors and investments for youth programs.
“We want to bring the opportunity that the Seattle Sounders offer to Merced,” Aguilera said. “We don’t want just the logo and the colors. We want the opportunity for the kids. We want the kids to believe that being professional, they can do it.”
Established about 16 years ago, the soccer academy has more than 1,000 children enrolled in programs and operates a community center at Stephen Leonard Park. The group also uses soccer fields at McNamara Park.
The academy has been affiliated with the Club Atlas team of Guadalajara, Mexico, but its red-and-black colors and branding would be replaced with the Sounders’ green-and-blue if a deal materializes.
The Sounders’ youth academy has six teams that range in age from under 12 to under 18. The academy produced 17 Division I players in 2016 and has 13 players who have gone on to first- or second-tier professional careers since 2011, including Tottenham Hotspur FC and U.S. men’s national team star DeAndre Yedlin.
Last summer, a Merced teen signed an all-inclusive contract with the Sounders, joining their academy. Lock said Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez has proven to be an excellent ambassador for Merced. After visiting Merced, he and Nicholls understood why Ocampo-Chavez is the type of person he is, Lock said.
Merced and the academy here demonstrate the three principles the Sounders academy looks for in its partner clubs – community, ambition and humility, Lock said.
“We definitely saw those in the academy and the town,” he said. “When we look for partners, we look for good people, first and foremost, as well as a commitment to developing players and giving them the best opportunities.
“Hopefully, we get more Alfonsos in the future,” Lock said.
Mayor Mike Murphy said he and other officials including county Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza and City Manager Steve Carrigan met with the Sounders representatives and local academy leaders to show the city’s support. Murphy said a partnership with the Sounders would benefit the entire community.
“Having additional recreation opportunities for our youth is important for our community,” he said. “There’s a real demand, not just for these sports, but also for the academic training and life-skills training that come with these sorts of activities. A partnership with an MLS team would be a great opportunity to accelerate those things.”
City officials say the demand for soccer fields in the city is high.
The city’s current soccer fields are used year-round with no “rest” time to let the grass recover, said Mike Conway, a city spokesman.
For years, the city has wanted to build a sports complex at Mission Avenue and Tyler Road that would add multiple soccer fields. Various factors, including a lack of funding and the state’s drought, prevented the city from moving forward on the project, Conway said.
City officials still are interested in the project and hope to add six to eight soccer fields within the next two or three years.
If the soccer academy partners with the Sounders, the city’s plans for the complex design and cost likely will change.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477