Last chance Yuma: Thriving Arizona Western soccer program bonds a community
Just a few miles from Mexico’s northern border sits the heart of Arizona’s agrarian community, a city sprouting lettuce and wheat and alfalfa and responsible for 90% of all leafy vegetables produced in the United States.
It is also growing something far more unexpected: a powerhouse junior college soccer program.
With 26 players from around the globe – including Ghana, Japan, France and Brazil – the union of international talent and Old West sensibilities seems an unlikely pairing in a community best known for snowbirds, scorching summers and its important history: an outpost for Spanish explorers and gold rush fortune hunters determined to cross the Colorado River.
Instead, it has been a wild success, and today Arizona Western College is in Tyler, Texas, one of 12 programs participating in the 16-team National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division I Men’s Soccer Championship. Players hope the team’s success will be a springboard for something more.
“We’ll see what opportunities I get,” said freshman left back Sam Oliver of England. “Hopefully, I can make it out here, get drafted, play in the MLS. It’s a dream.”
Arizona Western, established in 1963, pulls in students from the southwest corner of the state and is one of the few junior colleges with on-campus housing. As it has grown – enrollment is around 13,000 – so has its sports programs, especially its men’s soccer team.
And although the soccer community at the border is massive, AWC’s recruiting reach extends past traditional country borders.
“It’s really big,” coach Kenneth Dale said. “There are men’s leagues in Yuma, Somerton, San Luis, even San Luis, Mexico. So in a 30-mile radius, there’s probably four men’s leagues.”
Although the local crop of talent is thriving, only 20% of the Matadors’ 2021 squad has Yuma ties. The reason: the slew of international players in the program this year.
Athletes from across the globe come to Yuma for an opportunity to not only play soccer but to secure an American education. This is the case for Oliver, a Manchester United youth product who is looking to pursue a degree in economics off the pitch while pursuing long balls on it.
How did most of the 26 international players find the Yuma college? Agents. Many gifted international youth players have them, as they eye offers in larger sporting markets like the United States to secure more exposure for their clients.
“I had always dreamed of playing in big countries like this but I didn’t know when,” Ghanaian winger Michael Appiah said. “So I was just playing (at) the academy, and then I had an offer to come and play in Arizona.”
For others, they see it as a last chance to showcase skills they hope will open doors.
Even though the global pandemic made the recruiting process more difficult – it wiped out the 2020 season – Dale isn’t concerned the international recruiting pipeline will stop any time soon.
“We’d like kids to visit the campus if they can before they come in because they get to see where they’re going to be,” said Dale, remembering the days of VHS tapes and letter-writing. “But these days, there’s YouTube, it’s so much easier than it was when I was coaching 25 years ago. … It’s great for coaches, but it’s really, really good for kids.”
The opportunities have turned into playing time as international players like Oliver and Appiah have become staples of the Matadors’ starting 11, with the latter leading the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with 11 assists.
But while international talent sometimes steals the spotlight from the local crop, Yuma products including Ernie Garza are excited to have them as teammates instead of opponents.
“All these different cultures in the team are really fun, exciting, and new every day,” he said. “Because you got Japanese, Italian, French. You can count more and more than one hand. It’s just really amazing, really a good experience overall for a United States player.”
Garza, cut twice from the team in tryouts, made the squad for the first time in 2021. He sees the rise of international players as another incentive to work on his craft and put Yuma soccer on the map.
The various cultures and backgrounds make chemistry a work in progress at times, especially when some are still fine-tuning their English-language skills. Dale sees this as another part of job, regularly checking in with translators and languages professors on campus to make sure his players are on the same page.
Among the different cultures and language barriers is a singular tool that unites them: music. The Matadors regularly celebrate victories as if it’s New Year’s Eve, with each post-game revelry rowdier than the last. Even the team bus isn’t exempt as three-hour treks to Yuma following matches in the Valley are filled with celebratory singing, high-energy techno hits and all around rambunctious behavior, often led by Garza.
“They’re like little kids,” Dale said as he watched his players celebrate on the team bus after a recent 4-1 victory against Scottsdale Community College.
A typical ride: Various ethnicities singing Avicii songs in unison as Garza pounds on the overhead compartments above, eager to get some food after a big win.
On a recent trip, the landing spot was Whataburger. As the driver pulled up to the destination, assistant coach Fabian Munoz Valencia hopped out to check that the restaurant was still open and able to serve over 20 hungry soccer players within minutes. The players filed in, packed from register to door like sardines in a can, hungry and happy from their most recent triumph. They quickly order food and dispersed into groups, nationalities quickly finding their specific tables.
As Dale and Munoz Valencia talked, Dale reflected on recent lineup adjustments due to injuries.
“It’s like the gears on a watch. If one of them is off, the whole thing is,” he said.
The analogy seemed insignificant at first, but as time passed, a scene began to unfold inside the restaurant. Once separate factions, the players began to interact more: France’s Ridwane Boukraa chatted with Japanese teammates, Ghana’s Michael Appiah joked with a group of Frenchmen and Garza handed out meals to other players. The scene turned into a melting pot of communication and camaraderie, much like the gears of a watch that Dale had described.
As Dale ate his burger and fries, he eyed his team, grateful for both their communication and success.
“I thought to myself, if I want to have a long coaching career, I can’t want it more than the players,” he said.
The Dale legacy
Arizona Western’s success can be measured by 13 straight playoff appearances, an eye-opening achievement considering the two-year terms allowed in JUCO programs. Yet players from within Arizona and outside of the U.S. flock to the state’s bottom-left corner, in part because of the man who guides the team.
Dale, a Tucson native, has been around the game his entire life, both as a player and coach. He attended Catalina High School where he excelled on the pitch as a winger in the 1980s. After high school he stayed local, playing for the University of Arizona club team for several years before transferring to Kennesaw State University in Georgia in 1986.
He arrived at AWC in 2005 after various coaching stints including Pepperdine University, where he helped lead the Division I women’s team until he returned to Arizona in 1998 and settled at Cochise College. But his most successful tenure has been with the Matadors as he has transformed the program in the last 16 years, establishing the women’s program in 2013 while also leading the men to multiple conference championships and playoff berths.
This season’s success brought Dale personal accolades, as he was named ACCAC Coach of the Year for the second time in his 15-year tenure.
The AWC coaches say they are hands-on with their players, including Dale, who is a professor of history at the community college. He said he enjoys the time in the classroom, seeing it as a chance to connect with the community. Although two-year programs can be challenging to coach, Dale embraces it as he hopes to make an impact in a short amount of time before a new batch of players arrive.
One of the defining qualities of the team has been resilience. This was evident during a recent chilly and stormy night in Scottsdale. The then-undefeated team found itself in an unfamiliar place, trailing 1-0 with 20 minutes left in the game. The Matadors had won 13 straight and were disconnected as frustration began to grow on the bench.
Long balls unable to hit their mark mixed with an inability to keep possession in the final third of the pitch left the Yuma squad scrambling for an answer against Scottsdale Community College, their chance of a perfect season dwindling.
The scramble carried on for a few minutes until the Matadors were awarded a free kick yards outside the penalty area. Up stepped Boukraa, AWC’s captain. Players and coaches looked on as the moment neared, the team desperate for a spark. The whistle blew as the Frenchman rushed to the ball and struck it with great force, watching it skip into the bottom right corner. The bench erupted, the scoreboard blinked 1-1 and the Matadors were back in the game.
Boukraa‘s strike proved to be the spark the Matadors needed. Three goals followed in the last 10 minutes as AWC beat Scottsdale Community College, 4-1. Frustration and disappointment evaporated, replaced by joy and cheers as the players swiftly collected their bags and headed for the locker room with a perfect season still in sight.
The Matadors would go on to win their remaining conference schedule of games, finishing the season with a 2-0 victory over Yavapai College in the regional championship and keeping their record perfect at 18-0. The euphoria of perfection only lasted for another week however, as the Matadors lost, 2-1, in the District 1 championship game against the No. 1 team in the nation, Salt Lake Community College.
They still earned an at-large bid into the national championship tournament, and while the team is no longer perfect, a chance for the program’s first national championship remains. On Tuesday, they opened pool play of the tournament with a 3-0 win over LSU-Eunice.
“We’re in the mist of history,” Dale mused. But even in mid-October, he knew he had a special group.
A deep connection
During the Scottsdale Community College game, down 1-0 at the half, the Matadors huddled up on one end of Scottsdale Stadium. In need of inspiration, Dale turned to his assistants, who knew exactly what the team was going through. After all, they were in the same shoes a few years ago.
“I told them, the first thing you guys need is to believe. You guys are way better than them,” Munoz Valencia said. “We gave them the goal. If you think about it, we gave them the goal because we made a mistake.”
Born in Colombia, Munoz Valencia joined the program in 2015 as a player. Playing two full seasons under Dale, he eventually decided to join the coaching ranks for the 2021 season while also substitute teaching in the Yuma community.
The Matadors have taken a liking to the instruction from “Fabi” on the touchline, as he calls out plays in both English and Spanish. One of the most vocal coaches on the bench, Munoz Valencia seems to feel the emotion of the game more so than anyone in the stadium, frequently running up and down the touchline.
“I played here so sometimes it’s like personal, ya know,” he said.
Munoz Valencia isn’t alone as former teammate Rex Glenn joined the team as a coach in 2021. Providing advice and knowledge from the program’s first conference champions in 2015, Glenn sees his experience on the field for Dale as a sort of cheat code for the program this season.
“I know exactly what Kenny wants from them,” Glenn said. “And I know what to tell them for what he wants. And I also know the talent that (the players) bring in and the knowledge that they bring.”
Born in Yuma, Glenn grew up across the border in Mexico until he was 8. After AWC, Glenn, now 21, opened a taco stand in Somerton – 10 miles outside of Yuma – to help provide for his wife and daughter. A few months later, he decided to continue his college career at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. But that didn’t last long as after a few months Glenn started to miss the community and his family, eventually returning to Arizona.
“I don’t like big cities. I think Yuma is perfect. You have San Diego, two and a half hours from here, Phoenix two hours from here, Mexico across the border. Most of my life I’ve lived here so I don’t think it’s that bad,” Glenn said.
A week after the SCC game, the Matadors played in their final home game of the regular season against Paradise Valley Community College. As their wins increased, more people came out to the games, filling both sets of bleachers by kickoff on this particular evening.
Off to the side sat a row of adults in lawn chairs. One women was clutching a large drum, banging it whenever a goal kick was taken, a staple of the American soccer experience. The woman using the drum was Dale’s wife, Ana English.
Sitting beside her was Dale’s father Richard, another prominent figure at AWC games. The Tucson resident and recently retired doctor has driven around the country to support his son’s career for decades, showing up whenever he can to tournaments.
“I drive over here to Yuma to see the games most of the time when my son’s (team is) playing, and I drive to Phoenix a lot to see the games there,” he said.
Besides family members, other AWC employees come to support the local team, including former AWC soccer player and current groundskeeper, Guillermo Contreras, who has been tending the fields for the Matadors for 23 years.
Born in Mexicali, Contreras moved to the United States after elementary school when his family settled in San Luis, where he attended Kofa High School. Coming to AWC in 1983, he played for the Matadors before there was even an official league, often playing recreational games whenever another team from around the area was available.
“So it’s a pleasure. Like, (I) played for three years,” he said. “Nothing counted, but it was nice for us to have a chance to play.”
Although he splits time between AWC and another job in Imperial Valley, he has always felt a part of the community, watching it grow over time and coming out to games whenever he can.
Dale has brought in other members of the community. Retired law enforcement officer Tom VonAhlefeld is in his eighth season with the program, sharing various aspects of life experience with college athletes.
As his health has declined in recent years, his wife, Alice, has stepped up in his place, providing another team mom figure for the Matadors.
“You get into the team,” she said. “If they run into me at Walmart or something, they always come up and give me a hug, because they’re my boys.”
She attributes this bond to Dale’s coaching style.
“Kenny’s great, he really is,” she said. “He cares about the team. The team is welcome wherever he is. If he’s at home, and they’ve got a problem, he’s reachable. And I like that he kind of takes them under his wing.”
The next step
Two days removed from their first loss in three months, 20 players gathered with Dale in a classroom at 8 a.m. to watch the NJCAA Division I tournament bracket reveal. Hoping for an at-large bid, the mood of the Matadors revealed concern but Dale wasn’t worried, despite the one loss.
“It was good for us to lose,” he said. “There’s information in failure.”
This sentiment aligned with everything he’s about as a coach, saying from Day One that he’s not about the wins but about the process.
“This week is gonna be my best week of practice,” he said. “My ego is not tied up in their performance, it’s tied up in their development.”
The Matadors did receive an at-large bid, holding the seventh spot out of the 12 selected to go to Texas. And while a perfect season is no longer an option, the chance at redemption from 2019, when they were knocked out of the tournament prematurely, and the program’s first national championship, remains in sight.
“I have never seen a team that loves revenge more than these guys,” Dale said.
And in Texas, they have seen familiar faces. Before the tournament, Alice was asked if she would be among the fans.
“Oh sure, they’re my team,” she said.
And Yuma’s team.