Soccer is known as “the world’s game.” It’s the most-watched sport and the most played sport in the world. The top three athletes followed on Instagram are Ronaldo (355M), Messi (274M) and Neymar (162M), all footballers, and so well known that they are recognized by just their last name.
Throughout the world, soccer is at the intersection of people and their cultures. National teams are a source of pride, a way to celebrate your country and culture with others. The World Cup is one of the most attended and televised sporting events in the world, and countries will practically shut down whenever their national team is playing.
For Hispanic Heritage Month, two ECNL directors, Albertin Montoya of MVLA and Alex Pineda Chacon of Atlanta Fire United, shared their culture, experiences and love of soccer as an avenue to celebrate their heritage and continue to grow the game of soccer in the process.
Albertin Montoya doesn’t remember much of his childhood, growing up in Cuba, but of what he does remember, soccer was right there with him.
There’s the photo of him dressed in his father’s jersey, when he played for the local professional team. There’s attending those games to watch his father play. And there’s the time he made a homemade soccer ball to play in the street.
“I would make a ball from a rock,” Montoya said. “You would take a rock and you’d put paper all around it. And then you’d get tape and tape all over it. And then you’d just kick that around. You could even do it barefoot. You just put two cones, two shoes for a goal, and that was it. You don’t need all this equipment to play, you just needed a ball and a ‘goal.’ That’s where the beauty of the game comes from, it’s simple and just a way to express yourself.”
But Cuba was not where Montoya’s family wanted to stay. When he was just five years old, Montoya and his family took a boat from Cuba to the United States and settled in Mountain View, CA, where his grandparents had been living for the past five years.
It was there where Montoya’s true passion for soccer started to shine through.
“I started playing at a very early age,” Montoya said. “I loved the game and was obsessed with it. My entire room was covered in soccer posters. I grew up with soccer balls around me all over the house.”
When he was nine years old, Montoya joined MVLA, where his dad was a coach and eventually ran the club. Father and son were in the club together, with the former passing down knowledge to the latter.
As he got older, Montoya’s skills grew. He rose through the ranks at MVLA, and eventually was invited to participate in US Youth National Team events. He was a member of the U17 squad that traveled to Italy for the 1991 U17 FIFA World Cup, where the US advanced to the knockout round before falling in the quarterfinals.
Montoya continued to compete at a high level, playing collegiate soccer for North Carolina State and Santa Clara. He was selected fourth overall in the 1997 MLS College Draft by the San Jose Clash. He played one game for the Clash that year, suffering a knee injury against the Los Angeles Galaxy that would ultimately spell the end of his playing career.
“I was out for almost three years,” Montoya said. “While I was rehabbing and hoping that I would be able to play again, I just started coaching at the club that I grew up playing at since I was nine years old. I just started coaching some little kids, a girls team of seven-year-olds as a favor for a dad that had asked if I could help out.”
Coaching that team would change the trajectory of Montoya’s career and his life.
“That was such an incredible experience for me and working with those players and their families, I was hooked,” Montoya said.
He continued to coach the same group of girls, moving up in age groups as they got older. Three years after his initial injury, and with eyes still set on professional soccer, Montoya learned he would need another knee surgery. It was time for him to make up his mind.
“I’m like, look, I’m going to make a decision right now, because I don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” Montoya said. “So I decided to retire and keep coaching. I was able to follow my passion and stay involved with this game, and now I get to give back to it every day I’m out there on the field. Whether we’re working with seven-year-olds or professional players, because my career has taken me from club to college to national teams to pros, so I’ve done it all at all levels. But I always keep coming back to the youth game because I feel that’s where I can make the biggest difference and have the biggest impact.”
Throughout his coaching career, Montoya has accumulated accolade after accolade. During his time at the club, MVLA has won more than 25 state championships, three national championships, have put more than 20 players into the US Youth National Team Program, and gone from a small California club to a national powerhouse in the game.
With all that success, however, when referring to the biggest difference and biggest impact the club has had on his athletes, Montoya doesn’t talk about the on-the-field awards, but how players have grown off the field. He is exceptionally proud of the fact he’s able to join people from all across the Northern California region, from all different walks of life and bring them together, united through soccer.
“You have one common goal and that is coming together as a team,” Montoya said. “As a kid, you play the style of soccer you’re asked to play, but at the same time, you’re expressing yourself and being an individual. That’s one of the beauties about soccer. Yes, you’re working together, but every individual has some special qualities they show on the field. This game is so much more than just going out there and kicking a ball.”
Montoya knows firsthand the power of the sport. When he came to the US from Cuba, his family had nothing. Everything they had was left behind. So he and his family immersed themselves fully into the American culture. And it was through soccer Montoya found acceptance and confidence in himself in his new home.
“When we came from Cuba, we had absolutely nothing,” Montoya said. “When we got to the US, we made it a point to make sure we immersed ourselves in the US culture. Soccer was what allowed me to grow and to have an education. It allowed me to go and play in college, allowed me to play on youth national teams and see the world and travel. We didn’t have the means for that without soccer.”
Those experiences greatly shaped Montoya, and it’s why he wants to be able to give those same experiences to his club.
“Soccer, if done well, can touch so many lives, regardless of your economic background,” Montoya said. “That’s what’s really special. It’s so important to us that we do the best we can, as coaches and a club, to make sure everyone has those opportunities, regardless of their social or cultural background.”
For Montoya, that trip from Cuba to the United States was a pivotal moment in his life. While he hadn’t been back until just two years ago, he still holds on to and celebrates his heritage through food, music and family.
“The way we stay connected more so with anything with our heritage is through the food,” Montoya said. “My mom still cooks for us, at least two to three times a week, and she cooks Cuban meals. I think the food is some of the best food in the world and that really brings our family together. The music is a big part of it too, and the common bond of soccer throughout my family. It’s really more about the way we get together at our family gatherings that’s what’s really special about it.”
Montoya has built a family atmosphere at MVLA, with his wife coaching beside him and his two kids playing for the club as well. He’s continuing those family bonds, connecting him to generations past and generations future.
“My family, we love this game,” Montoya said “We love what we do and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to coach my son and my daughter through this process, just like my dad did. I am thankful that the ECNL is a platform that allows my wife and I and our club to continue this journey and provide opportunities for our players. I mean, that is so big for me, because I would have never been able to go to college if it wasn’t for soccer. I’m so grateful to be in this position, doing what I love and to be able to share my experiences with my kids at MVLA.”
Alex Pineda Chacon knows intimately how deep the love of soccer is for the Hispanic community. He’s experienced it firsthand, representing his home country of Honduras on the national stage.
“Soccer is the number one sport because we don’t have any other sports,” Pineda Chacon said. “The passion is there every day, like when you see a newspaper on the street, the top story every day is a soccer story. And kids growing up have the dreams to one day be in the newspaper. We watch soccer, we listen to it on the radio. When the national team plays, the whole country, they socialize and have barbecues just to watch the game. Everybody is a unit and they enjoy the game together and celebrate together. It’s like a religion.”
When he was 16 years old, after growing up playing soccer with his brother’s friends and classmates at school, Pineda Chacon headed to the National Team Training Center to try out for the Honduran national squad. In order to make the team, he had to beat out more than 2,000 athletes during a three-month evaluation period.
Not only did he make the team, but when the U17 faced off against Mexico in a U17 World Cup qualifier, he was the team’s captain.
“When I was named captain against Mexico, that’s when I knew soccer could be my future,” Pineda Chacon said. “I wanted to be part of something important for my country. It was amazing to wear that jersey and represent my country.”
In 1992, when he was 23 years old, Pineda Chacon made his debut for the Honduran senior national team. It kick-started an eight-year career that included appearances in World Cup qualifiers, UNCAF Nation Cup games and in four CONCACAF Gold Cups.
In 2001, after success on both the national stage and in domestic leagues in Honduras, Mexico and Peru, Pineda Chacon headed to the United States to play for the Miami Fusion in MLS.
Pineda Chacon’s introduction to MLS was unlike anything the league had seen before. Pineda Chacon recorded 19 goals and added an additional nine assists, the most on the team. He led the league in goals, earning himself the Golden Boot, MVP and Best XI honors.
During that first season, Miami approached Pineda Chacon about becoming a resident in the United States. He politely declined.
“At that time, I was still, what I call, ‘wearing the H’ (for Honduras) on my chest,” Pineda Chacon said. “I was just thinking, I can play the four-year contract that I have, then go back to my country to work, keep playing or even coach. That was my goal, to come back to my country. I still had the ‘H’ on my chest.”
However, as he stayed in the United States, he eventually changed his mind. He continued to play professionally until 2004, when he settled in Atlanta. It was there, with a fellow teammate, where he got his start in coaching.
“When I was done playing, I took on the challenge of being a coach,” Pineda Chacon said. “I was thinking it was a good idea to continue and explore being a coach. But at the same time, I was thinking, ‘what’s my next step?’ I started out as a coaching trainee and continued working and now I’ve been in youth coaching for 16 years.”
Pineda Chacon’s coaching duties have ranged from being a head coach in the NASL for the Atlanta Silverbacks to various youth clubs in Atlanta. Eventually, he became involved with Atlanta Fire United, where he currently works as an assistant coaching director.
“I was thinking I’d continue to coach at the pro level, but also I was working in the youth game,” Pineda Chacon said. “I was really starting to enjoy teaching kids and giving them a foundation. We were forming new values for the kids, which is important to me because I was once a kid and I appreciated everything the coaches did for me, and I was doing the same for them.”
As a coach, Pineda Chacon was able to share his experiences and expertise with kids whose dreams were to accomplish what he had already lived. Being able to use his professional career as inspiration to the kids he coached is something Pineda Chacon is proud of.
“I try to pass my passion for the game onto these kids,” Pineda Chacon said. “My background and experiences give me more credibility. I can talk, but I’m also talking with living examples. I enjoy it and I think players appreciate knowing I’m involved in the game that we love. I’m still coaching and just trying to pass on my knowledge of the game. I’m in a place where I want to be.”
As he’s become more entrenched in the United States, Pineda Chacon has embraced his new culture and new home. While his first daughter was born in Honduras, his second was born in Miami when he was playing for the Fusion. They are both US citizens. In fact, two years after he initially declined a green card, Pineda Chacon started the process to become a US citizen as well.
“I’m very proud to be a citizen of the United States,” Pineda Chacon said. “I feel very grateful for this country. After 20 years of living in the United States, I realize how important it was that I ended my career here.”
Pineda Chacon is very proud of his history and his heritage. And he’s honored to be able to be a living example of people’s dreams and showing them that they can accomplish whatever they set their mind to.
“Being a part of this family, being a part of the Latin community, the Hispanic community in the United States, it’s really important to me,” Pineda Chacon said. “It’s important to tell kids that my dreams came true for me, and it can come true for them too. If you try as hard as you can and be disciplined and focused, I think everything is possible, not just in soccer but in other parts of life too. Whatever you do, do it with passion.”