Hoping to feed more of its soccer-frenzied youths into the college system, Santa Ana is allowing a local soccer club free use of the city's new, $2-million all-weather sports field to help develop better players.
The move reflects civic frustration that the city's two dozen youth and adult soccer leagues have produced a dearth of college and professional players -- and signals an unusual effort by municipal government to develop sports talent.
In a five-year deal with the city, the nonprofit Toros Futbol Club has agreed to create a soccer academy that would offer free instruction and league play for 200 top-flight players, of whom at least 85% must be Santa Ana residents. In exchange, the academy will have priority use of the synthetic field at Centennial Regional Park. Other sports groups are charged for use of the public facility.
Santa Ana officials say an elite instructional program is long overdue for a predominantly Latino city of 350,000, where 8,500 youths, and almost one in 10 residents, play organized soccer.
"We've got a lot of kids playing and playing, but they have no professional training or mentorship to excel in the sport," said Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio. "By partnering with this academy, we can create a pipeline for these youths that can lead to college scholarships and professional opportunities.
"The city has been spending a lot on physical infrastructure, new housing developments, transportation projects, but this is a way to invest in our youth," he said. "Kids who play soccer are not out roaming the streets. It's a good crime-prevention tool."
City officials say that the concept of a city-sponsored sports academy is groundbreaking and that the tuition-free structure is contrary to Santa Ana's traditional league system, where youth players are charged hundreds of dollars in registration and tournament fees per year and fans pay up $4 to attend games. Under the deal, the nonprofit academy's books will be audited once a year by a third party.
"It's very refreshing, very exciting," said Santa Ana parks Supt. Mike Lopez. "Our young talented youth soccer players [will] have the opportunity to play highly competitive soccer for free."
Jose Vasquez, one of the few players to graduate from the Santa Ana leagues and make it to the Mexican and American professional ranks, was ecstatic when he learned of the academy.
"It's surprising, with so many leagues and so much soccer, nothing comes out of Santa Ana," said Vasquez, now the men's coach at Santa Ana College. "As a college coach, I've often had to pull kids out of these leagues and push them into college. Maybe now I won't have to do that."
David Zimmerman, a longtime youth soccer coach who played professionally in the United States, will run the school out of the Dan Young Soccer Complex in Centennial Regional Park. Zimmerman and city officials are now discussing building a facility at the site, funded by sponsors, where players could do homework and receive after-school tutoring.
Lopez said a minimum grade-point average would be required for every member of the soccer school.
"We've recognized that there is no strong, legitimate path to college for many of our talented soccer players," Lopez said. "We wanted a place with good coaching, good soccer skill development, that was mindful of education so that when the college opportunity comes knocking, the kids will be ready academically."
Gerardo Mouet, Santa Ana's director of parks and recreation, said other veteran soccer coaches expressed interest in running an academy, but only Zimmerman offered a tuition-free school.
"We were convinced he had the right credentials as a coach and a player," Mouet said. "And he's been running his club for a while without charging the kids."
Zimmerman said the size of the school would be determined by the amount of sponsorship money.
He said he planned to form about 20 boys' and girls' teams, for ages 5 to 18. Most teams will play in the highly competitive Coast Soccer League. The academy's teams will play under the name Santa Ana Toros, and they will play for free.
Zimmerman hopes to attract the top youth players in Santa Ana through a series of open tryouts, which start May 7.