Turlock’s professional soccer team Academica SC is eager to get back on the pitch next weekend for their first home match since the pandemic began. While competition is important, the team is equally as excited to interact with their loyal fans after being sidelined by COVID for over a year.
When the world shut down last spring due to the coronavirus, Academica was coming off of a 2019 season which saw the team advance to playoffs during their second season in the National Premier Soccer League. The team made it all the way to the Western Region Semifinal that year and their success continued into the 2020 season, where Academica was 2-0 in Golden Gate Conference play before the pandemic began.
“Honestly, it was terrible because we were in a great place at that time...It was hard not to see what would have come from that season,” Academica head coach Sergio Sousa said. “I’ve said this multiple years in a row, but I thought last year was the best team we’d ever had up until that point. Fortunately, I’m saying the same thing this season and we’re continuing to get better.”
With their season cancelled in 2020 thanks to COVID, there were no games to prepare for as Academica’s fellow conference competitors don’t have their own facility to practice at, unlike the Turlock squad. Soccer activities were put on hold for the professional team until about a month ago when they began to practice again in preparation for the upcoming season.
The break resulted in the loss of some players, Sousa said — older players who decided to hang up their cleats after so much time off, college players who had graduated and moved home and others who got new jobs during their pandemic downtime. Still, about two-thirds of the roster has returned for the upcoming season.
Some of those players are college athletes who wouldn’t have normally been able to play due to NCAA restrictions, like University of California, Merced standouts Juan Flores (2020-21 California Pacific Conference Player of the Year) and Ricky Rosas (three-time California Pacific Conference First Team All-Conference). Had the season began earlier in the year as it would have during non-pandemic times, it would have interfered with college play.
In addition to UC Merced, there are also players from Stanislaus State, Fresno Pacific University and California State University Monterey Bay on the Academica roster.
“Now we get to use those guys who wouldn’t have been able to play for us before,” Sousa said.
After a year of isolation, the team was happy to get back on the pitch in early April to begin practicing again. The players on the team are close, Sousa said, as many live in the area and spend free time after games and practices with each other. Early practices this season were spent catching up and socializing, with the team just happy to be around each other again.
“It was like, ‘The boys! We’re back with the boys!’” Sousa laughed. “That’s a big part of why we’re successful. We have that culture where everybody likes being around each other and hanging out with each other.”
Eventually, however, the focus returned to soccer. Academica is preparing to host a GGC rival next Saturday when FC Davis comes to Turlock. Sousa expects the match to be a high-scoring affair, as both teams are evenly-matched with rosters complemented by college-level athletes.
“Soccer’s not typically a high-scoring sport, but these are two teams that are very high-powered offensively and are eager to get playing again in front of people for the first time in a year,” Sousa said. “With the excitement that usually comes with our home games, I anticipate players are going to be buzzing and it’s going to be a high-energy game.”
Players to watch next weekend and throughout the season include former Turlock High School soccer standouts Marcus DeCouto and Desmond Madrigal, as well as UC Merced alum Brennan Canfield. Two-time NPSL Player of the Week recipient Cody Golbad is returning as well, along with the team’s lead scorer, Jose Barriga.
The team has also been able to utilize talent from its youth affiliate, Academica Jrs., and the roster will feature four former 19U players this season: Bobby Ceja, Diego Hernandez, Bryan Manriquez and Felipe Lopez.
Fans of the team can make their way out to Academica Field, 1343 W. Greenway Ave., at 7 p.m. May 15 for the team’s match against FC Davis. Admission for Saturday’s game is free, and Sousa as well as the team are hoping for a large crowd of the “Black and Gold Brigade” to welcome them home.
“We’re excited to be able to play in front of them again and to interact in person, not just through social media and a couple of posts,” Sousa said. “To see them and have them see us and to have that interaction again is something we’ve all looked forward to and have talked about for weeks.”