PORTLAND - This sports story seems on its surface like any other sports narrative. A team starts out the season losing, at the bottom of the rankings but with hard work they claw their way up and win the title. No, this isn't the 2015 story of the Portland Timbers. This is a story about PCFC’s U10 Aztecas.
The Aztecas had their first official season with the club in Spring of 2017. The first game in a heavy spring rain was a close loss of 1-3 but their second game was an absolute blowout loss. The coaches realized they had some work ahead of them. But this was no ordinary coaching staff. Shema Jacques, Daniel(DJ) Mugisha and Carolina Morales have all been playing this game since they could walk. And they knew the Aztecas had the potential to go all the way.
Shema and DJ are both the first candidates in the club’s Junior Coaching program, which trains 15-18 year olds to become coaches. And Carolina, a mother of two players in our club, had never coached officially but you'd never know that by watching her professionally manage the team.
Every good coach knows that losing is a part of the learning process but every good coach is also a fierce competitor. These three are no exception to that rule. They came to training every day with the motivation to push these young athletes just a little more. No, that doesn't mean kids running sprints or boring repetitive passing drills. That meant smart, fun games that taught the players the importance of individual ball skills and team skills. As the season progressed the kids started displaying their new found skills gradually during games. And suddenly they started winning. And they kept winning. The season was drawing to a close and the Aztecas had found themselves rising from the bottom to the top of the La Amistad league. In a tense, competitive championship game the Aztecas took 1st place with a one point win. I've been coaching for over 20 years and I've never witnessed such an incredible turn around in one season. But the story doesn't end there.
The players, parents and coaches couldn't ignore the palpable energy that was flowing through this team. They continued training and playing through the summer (our only team to do so!). They continued to not only win but to really become a team. And that's what this game is all about. The team.
The three defensive players, Yaritza, Camila and Marlene became a force to be reckoned with, oh and they just happen to be three girls playing in an all boy’s league. The forwards and midfielders began to string passes together and all the while there was never a shortage of smiles, laughter and pure love of the game. So the next logical step was to enter the team into their first tournament. On August 25th the Aztecas played in their first major tournament going up against big (and much more expensive) clubs from both Oregon and Washington. But nothing was going to intimidate this team. They won their first game 8-5 and then went on to win their second game handily, 6-1. The third game resulted in their first loss of the tournament and the first loss in almost 3 months. They loss to the Aguilas from Seattle, WA 5-3 after leading them 3-2 for most of the game. But with 21 points in the tournament and 17 goals they had done the hard work to make it to the semi-finals the following day. In a classic showdown the semi-final game was a nail bitter and was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation and over time. So on to the penalty shootout. The Aztecas approached this challenge like all others - with confidence. They continued to defy all the odds of being the unknown team from the unknown club. And they earned their way into the finals winning the shootout.
At 5pm on August 27th, 2017 the team stepped onto the field prepared to battle the Agulias, the team they had lost to the day before. But this time they were playing on the very same field the MLS Timbers and the NWSL Thorns play on. The final games for this age group were at Providence Park. Many of the players had never been to the stadium let alone stepped onto the field (including myself!). As I arrived to the stadium and found the smiling, giddy players and parents one of our most impressive players, Camila asked me with wide eyes if this stadium filled up at Timbers games. When I told her that almost every seat was filled for both the Timbers and Thorns games she scanned the stadium with her mouth wide open, a quiet “whoa” escaped. I couldn't help but wonder if she was picturing herself playing there someday.
Since these two teams had already battled it out it was difficult to predict what would be the result. But within 30 seconds of kick off Ricardo drilled the ball into the back of the net off a slicing pass from the right wing. And that started the Aztecas on a 3-0 run within the first 10 minutes of the game. The Aguilas scrambled to stay organized, but despite the pleas from their coaches they just couldn’t contain the Azteca's speed and precision.
As the teams returned to the field after half-time it seemed fairly certain that this was going to be a one-sided game, but any good coach knows it’s not over until the final whistle. And as I stood on the sidelines watching in amazement I heard the same phrase from each of our coaches as the Aztecas continued to put in goal after goal…”it’s still zero to zero”. A phrase that so many coaches try to embed into their player’s psyches in order to remain focused on the task at hand instead of the score. For the Aztecas it seemed that was all they needed to hear. As the minutes began to wind down the spread of the score continued to widen. But the 5th goal was one of the most impressive displays of teamwork I’ve witnessed in many years. In the defensive end Camila stealthy stole the ball from in front of her own net, quickly found an outlet pass to Gabriel in the midfield. He turned on a dime, found his left winger’s foot who placed a one time pass across the middle to Yurel sprinting through the midfield. As one of the top scorers on the team Yurel practically finished the play with eyes closed as he placed it precisely in the lower right corner of the net. The Aguilas were defenseless and the Aztecas were on top of the world.
This is just the beginning for the Aztecas and they are now the shining example of what can happen when you give kids the opportunity to receive quality coaching and playing experiences. PCFC's mission is to offer this to every player who comes through our doors. And as the large log slice with the words "Champions" emblazoned on it was raised high above the team's heads I felt a shiver run down my spine. This is the power of the beautiful game!
- Kaig Lightner, Founder and Director of Coaching