"At the rate that Academica is growing, I see us becoming the Central Valley's premier amateur/semi-pro team."
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Good morning everyone! What a crazy, crazy, crazy week it's been in American Soccer! But amidst the craziness, let's pause and remember that one of our grandest traditions is taking place this weekend: 2018 US Open Cup qualifying games. And today's interview features one of them. Academica SC.
I've got to say, I'm really glad I was able to figure out this interview. Academica is a true hidden gem of a team. Been around for decades, and they have their own field. But I don't want to spoil everything. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your roll is with Academica SC.
My name is Simon Bettencourt and I'm the President of Academica SC. I was born and raised in the Central Valley of California where Academica SC is located.
How did you come to be a fan of soccer?
Soccer is a family obsession. My dad started playing with his 4 brothers when he was a child and he's passed that along to me and my brother and sister. Soccer is the main sport of my family and my childhood was filled with weekends all over Northern California for competitive soccer games, whether it was playing or watching my siblings. This passion is shared by my cousins and we all grew up playing at the Academica fields together.
What's the 'origin story' behind the creation of Academica SC?
My father and mother immigrated to California from the Azores Islands of Portugal in the 1960's along with many other Azoreans. They all settled down in the Central Valley and started a Portuguese community centered around the Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Turlock, CA. A few of the older members of the community decided to start/fund a soccer team for the youth and name it after Academica de Coimbra, a professional team in Portugal. My father and his 4 brothers were some of the first players for the team and Academica was born in 1972. Since then, Academica has built its own stadium with lights next to the parish and has grown into a focal point for local colleges to recruit as well as a development team for players in the area.
You guys have been around for a long time then. What are some of the highlights of Academica's sporting history? Big wins, phenomenal players, those kind of things.
We've been competing in Portuguese tournaments throughout the state for over 40 years and have always been successful. We were also in the CCSL of Sacramento where we've come away with two league championships. I feel like our club has gone through two great phases in our history, starting with the 80's when the young players that started the club were at their peak and then carrying over into the late 90's - early 2000's when we had a great group of college players and local legends like the Sousa brothers. I think this group of players we have now is the start of our next great phase, which hopefully gets started with our first USOC win last weekend. Some standout players in my memory would have to be Adolfo Gregorio and Manuel Brasil. Gregorio played for us for years while he won a National Championship at UCLA and was drafted into the MLS. Manuel Brasil was a local legend who was the base of our squad throughout our second great phase. Both of these players grew up minutes from our home stadium.
Having never been further north then Santa Barbara, California, how would you describe Turlock and it's soccer scene to an outsider, like me?
Turlock is right in the middle of the great agricultural area of California, an hour and a half from both Sacramento and the Bay Area. Its a town of 70,000 with a small town feel. The soccer scene in Turlock has been thriving for years. Players from the area regularly go onto to play college soccer all over the state, including to CSU Stanislaus which is located in Turlock. The area is full of great amateur teams and talented players and we've built a club where these players can improve and grow.
What league does Academica currently play in? I know you've got a lot of options out there in California.
We are currently playing in the LIGA Norcal of the US Club Soccer association but we competed in the Central California Soccer League of Sacramento for over 30 years. LIGA Norcal is a new league but its very professionally run and the quality of play there is the best in Northern CA.
Wasn't the LIGA Norcal started just in the last year or two?
Yeah, NorCal Premier Soccer has had an adult league for awhile now but they revamped it this year as LIGA NorCal. They're working towards making it the premier league in Northern California with multiple divisions and the relegation/promotion aspect included. They're really trying to build a top amateur league for the teams in the area. It's got great potential.
How exciting was it to win that first USOC game? After what we saw with Christos FC, we all know a good Open Cup run can have a dramatic effect on a non leagues clubs fortunes.
Oh definitely. It was great to not only win the game but to do it at home in front of our supporters. The fan support was amazing, something of that magnitude we haven't seen in the last few years. I enjoyed the level of professionalism on display from everyone invovled, it really gets you excited about being in such a prestigious competition. We're hoping a good Open Cup run builds a great springboard for the club to propel us higher. Christos FC was a shining example of what local amateur talent can do.
Since you're in the heart of California, what do you make of all the different amateur leagues, both locally and nationally, that are competing for not just players, but teams as well?
That's the great thing about amateur soccer, its constantly growing. 10 years ago, teams only cared about their local league and the teams they competed against but we've seen a great growth in the awareness of amateur soccer. Semi-pro leagues like the PDL and NPSL have provided inspiration that a lot of these new premier amateur leagues are following. Good amateur teams are now looking beyond their local area and are competing all over the country. There's a lot of opportunities for teams and players to get in on the ground floor of these leagues that could potentially grow into something big. One thing I would like to see though is more divisional regulation: defining the quality or level of leagues. A centralized measuring system that could determine where a league sits in comparison to others.
What does the proposed structure of LIGA NorCal look like?
Right now LIGA is one league comprised of 10 teams. They range from the Bay Area to Sacramento and everywhere in between. The league has plans to expand and eventually develop into two divisions, a Regional division and a Premier division with relegation/promotion between them. They're also hoping that each club in the league will eventually have in-house leagues that they can select players from. Cris Gilmore at NorCal is spearheading this league and is doing a great job cultivating the support it needs. It's really grown in leaps and bounds from its inception this last spring.
Let's touch on your idea of divisional regulation. A lot of guys, including myself, talk about the need for this, but not many of us own or operate amateur clubs. How would you go about doing something like this?
I think the UEFA Country Coefficient rating system would be a good guide on how we can measure quality in this country. This system rates different European leagues based on the results of their teams matches against other leagues. We would need to track results from games between teams from different leagues, whether its in the USOC or in regional tournaments. These results, grouped with the teams standing in their league, would provide an estimate on the strength of that league. It also allows for changes to be made from year to year as the quality of the league increases or decreases. Teams in these leagues would need to be encouraged to enter in these inter-league tournaments for enough results to be provided but that could be done the same way Champion League spots are awarded, based on standings at the end of the season. It's a massive under taking but I think its the best option for the sheer number of teams in our country. US Soccer could manage it as it takes almost no resources to track and record these results to provide standings.
What do you mean by in-house leagues? Would Academica SC have it's own league of just Academica teams, like white, blue, red, yellow, etc?
Not necessarily just Academica teams, other local teams as well. This is still several years away though so these are just ideas at the moment. Its just about congregating local talent into one league.
If you could start an inter-league tournament, how would you go about doing it? This seems like something you've thought through.
The biggest hurdle to starting an inter-league tournament would be participation, rounding up all the local teams and convincing them to join. A lot of dialogue with the leagues in the area would also be required in order for them to cover tournament fees for their teams or something of that nature since a majority of these teams are content to just play their amateur Sunday league but its the top teams in these divisions that are needed to compete in these tournaments. In a state the size of California, you would also need to have a inter-league tournament for each half of the state, North and South. It just seems like the best solution to a very convoluted situation.
A lot of people seem to forget that California is just plain big, and has more large cities than a lot of countries. Organizing everything would be a challenge, so the progress made by NorCal is awesome.At the rate things are going in your area of the state, where do you hope to see Academica in the next three to five years?
At the rate that Academica is growing, I see us becoming the Central Valley's premier amateur/semi-pro team. California soccer is booming and I think Academica will be at the front of the pack in this amateur soccer renaissance. We're building grassroots support and I'm excited to see how far we can go.
What are two or three lessons you've learned about running a local team that would be valuable for others in similar situations to know?
Running a club takes vision and having a goal but its being open to change that will make achieving these goals easier. You don't need to compromise your values but there's always more than one road to your destination so be open to outside advice.
Another lesson is to always be looking to improve, as the old saying goes, if you're not growing, you're dying. Not every amateur club will be the best but there's always room for improvements whether it be on the field or in your daily processes.
Yet the biggest lesson I've learned is no club runs without support. It's not only the support of the players on the field but the people in the stands and the volunteers that allow what we do to be possible. Everyone that works within our club does so at their expense so its these people that keep amateur soccer going. Grow your local support and they will grow your club.
Are there any particular things you've done, or do, to grow support for Academica, or is the longevity of the team a big part of attracting that support?
The longevity of the club is a big part of our support, a lot of the players in the area grow up playing at our facility, but getting on social media has allowed us to directly connect to these people. We started our social media presence only a couple of years ago. The club is well known in the community but before social media, we really had no way to advertise or promote our team. Social media lets us share information with our fans that was done before by word of mouth. Another thing we've done is actively pursue sponsors. The local community has been a big part is helping us grow with its financial support. Businesses are willing to invest in the future of our club.
If someone were to watch Academica play, what style of play would they expect to see?
Our coach, Sergio Sousa, has created a structured yet adaptable style of play for our team. We're an attacking side that implements pressing and quick build up. Speed of play is a big part of our game and we like to perform at a high tempo. Sousa has experience coaching UC Merced and knows how to get the best out of the players we have.
Are there any players we should be keeping our eyes on in US Open Cup play?
We've got a great group of players and everyone is capable of producing something special. Some key players for us are Steven Sousa, Beto Lopez, Ramiro Ceja, and Arnaldo Gutierrez, who scored the game winner for us in the first round. They are a part of what makes this team great to watch. We also have Gerardo Cazares and Alex Bettencourt who have experience playing in the USOC with Burlingame Dragons and Sacramento Gold respectively.
A lot of teams at the lower levels have minimal or no social media presence. What would you say to the teams that will read this about, firstly, how important social media and second, how it can be done well?
For an amateur club, social media is critical to growth. People become supporters by feeling a connection to the club and social media allows them to do that without actually joining the team. Social media starts the same way the team does, with the players. Players need to be involved in the social media presence by sharing and joining in on it to spread awareness. It stems out from them out to the rest of the community. Keeping the content interesting is also important. Information can be shared in photos and banners much more easily then reading a paragraph. Visual messages are more effective than written most of the time. Another tip is to keep the content flowing consistently but not overwhelming. People usually ignore accounts that post every 5 mins but never posting anything defeats the purpose of the social media presence.
Where can people find you on social media and online, by the way?
We have a Facebook (facebook.com/academicasc), an Instagram (@academicaturlock), and a Twitter (@academicasc). We're currently developing a website as well.
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Definitely the EPL. I'm an Arsenal fan but I'll watch basically any game from the league. The atmosphere and style of play of those games are always good to watch
Are there any teams around you that you would consider to be major rivals or can't miss games when you play each other?
There are a couple of local teams around us that we play in the our Portuguese summer tournaments every year that have a bit of the rivalry feel but we've been pretty dominant in those lately. In league though, Davis Legacy is always a good match, they produce a lot of talent up there and always give us a tough game. We play them next in December so something to look forward to.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Being Portuguese, this was always going to be a biased question. Favorite past player is Luis Figo, he was leading the national team when I first started watching in 2002. Favorite present one has to be Cristiano Ronaldo. I'm sure he's a popular answer but its special that he's Portuguese too.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Yeah Inverting the Pyramid is book about the tactical evolution of soccer. It's a great way to see how the game has changed since its beginning days. Also, to appease my Arsenal fan side, I just finished Danny Karbassiyoon's book, "The Arsenal Yankee". It was an eye opening look at the life of a young professional player.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
I just watched a documentary on the life of George Best. I think meeting him would have resulted in a great time. He really lived life the way he wanted to and redefined what it meant to be a soccer superstar.
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like Academica SC?
Most everyone knows what its like to watch a live sporting event compared to on TV. The atmosphere of live sports just creates a unifying feeling. Local teams let fans experience that and the connection is that much more meaningful because the team is familiar. These are players they may know or at the least live the same lifestyle they do. Buying in to a club trying to share that is a great feeling and it only gets better from there.
Simon, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.