The 2023 United Soccer League season is here, and the men’s and women’s teams of Academica Soccer Club in Turlock are ready for the new challenge.
After spending five years in the National Premier Soccer League, Turlock’s semi-professional squads will be competing in the USL for the very first time. The men’s team, which is in its 51st season, will be competing in USL League Two while the women’s squad will be in USL W in just their second year of existence. Their first games are on Sunday in San Bruno against the San Francisco Glens FC.
Sergio Sousa will be leading the men’s team for his sixth year. As someone who grew up playing for Academica, the transition to the USL is of great significance.
“Since I was a baby, I was out here with my dad and my uncle playing and being out at games. It's just part of my passion and something that I’m really proud of,” Sousa said. “It's exciting to move up because the quality of players here in the Central Valley, it’s another opportunity to show our talent on a bigger stage. But it's an appropriate level. It's not a stage that we don't belong, but because the players that we have here, we can match whatever the teams in this new league throw at us.”
According to Sousa, there are approximately 40 players in their pool ahead of their debut this weekend. The roster consists of players with professional experience, college players, recent college graduates and even some high school seniors. Those expected to carry heavy minutes in 2023 include Desmond Madrigal (Stan State), Daniel Borges (UC Merced), Tobby Rosas (Stan State), Andres Lua (UC Merced), Ron Williams (Fresno Pacific), Felipe Lopez (Merced College), Jorge Lara (Stan State) and Josh Santillan (Stan State).
Madrigal is a Turlock High alumnus and aside from playing at Stan State, was with the San Jose Earthquakes Academy and signed a professional contract with San Diego 1904 FC in 2021, will serve as the team’s center and right back for his fifth season.
“Playing in League Two, it definitely changes the level of excitement. It’s a new challenge for all of us, but I think as far as mindset, morals and principals go, it all stays the same since I’ve been here. I think the level of expectation rises a little bit too, so it’ll be fun. It’ll be a good summer,” Madrigal said.
Rosas, a fullback also in his fifth Academica season, shared similar sentiments.
“Academica has been showing that they've been a team of high quality for years now, so it's cool to kind of get the opportunity to showcase it in another league, which, on paper is higher than the NPSL,” he said. “It’s going to be a different challenge, but we’re ready. What we have here is special something that's going to bring not only teams of different leagues and competitions together but also the local fans of soccer.”
For the women’s team, the roster pool has a very similar construction, though it’s slightly bigger with nearly 60 players. And in their second season in team history, they will be led by their second head coach, James Burns, who takes over for Damon Solomon after he stepped down in March to spend more time with family. Though he has had just over a month to prepare his squad for USL W competition, Burns explained that it has been an experience unlike any other.
“It's been fun,” he said. “I've been primarily rooted on the boys side of soccer, coaching club in Manteca, and I deal with a bunch of freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior boys. It’s been a nice change of pace to be out here with the women, and to be honest, I've been looking for a challenge in my coaching career. I've been looking for an opportunity to be around high-level quality players, and this environment definitely affords that… I come to the training field eager to share my knowledge and put my imprint on the game.”
Despite only having a couple weeks to get to know the players on his team, the Academica ladies have squeezed in as much training and practice as possible, putting in work at least three days a week, something especially important as they move to the new league.
“We're definitely stepping into a league with a bunch of big names and programs that are attached to division one universities and programs. They've certainly made a splash, but the players are excited. I think they understand that it's a big step up, but I think they're ready for the challenge. They've shown that every time out. They've been pretty receptive to the training that we put in front of them. One promise I made coming in was that I was going to train them hard.”
In the practices, Burns has been particularly impressed by Brianna Figueroa (Fresno City College), Ainsley Wood (Modesto Junior College), Emma Albino (Sonoma State), Trinidad Quiroz (UC Merced), Savannah Leifried (Patricia Kay Beaver Leadership Magnet School, Ceres), Malia Allen (Stan State) and Kinsey Taa (Stan State).
“I had a little bit of experience with Damon at Stanislaus when he coached there a little bit, but so far with James, it's been great,” Taa, a Hilmar High alumna, said of the last-minute coaching change. “It's been intense from the get-go and he hasn't led off since, and I think it only helped us improve and do well this season.”
Like those on the men’s team, Figueroa believes that the USL offers the local talent an opportunity to prove that they are some of the best that the region and nation has to offer.
“It’s going to definitely be a really high level of competition, and that's something we can all work towards and to prove that we can make it from here,” the midfielder said. “We don't have a ton of these crazy big names that these other teams probably do, but we can definitely prove who we are.”
The women’s team hasn’t had a chance to tune up much without any preseason matches. As for the men’s squad, they went 2-0-2 with wins over San Ramon FC and Acoreano Sport and draws against UC Merced and FC Davis.
“I think people are gotten glimpses of what we can do when we had our preseason friendlies, but obviously we weren't able to put all the pieces together yet,” Sousa said. “We’re going to be on a road the first game, obviously our home fans are not going to be able to see the roster at the moment, but you know, in two weeks from now when everyone's home, I hope everybody is ready to see a nice, finished product.”
Sunday’s matches in San Francisco will take place at Skyline College. The men will take the pitch first at 1 p.m. while the ladies’ game will start immediately after around 3:30 p.m. Next weekend’s home openers at Academica Fields at 1343 W. Greenway Ave. in Turlock will be on Saturday. The men will open the show once more against the SF Glens at 4 p.m. and the women’s game will serve as the nightcap at 7 p.m.