OAKLAND, Calif. — Soccer is the most popular sport in the world and it has the unique ability to connect cultures and generations, especially among the Hispanic community.
Latinos in the United States represent a trillion-dollar market in a country with the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. The Oakland Roots Soccer Club have tapped into that market while giving local athletes an opportunity to reach their dreams of playing for professional leagues.
If you ask Oakland Roots players what they call the game they love, they will all give you different word.
To head coach Noah Delgado he usually calls it soccer, but he says it depends on where they are playing.
Rookie forward Etsgar Cruz goes with the more traditional name of fútbol.
Fellow rookie midfield Danny Gomez calls it footie.
For captain Emrah Klimenta, you can call it whatever you want to, “soccer, footie, fútbol, whatever you want to call it, it’s the world games," — meaning something different to each person.
Klimenta says it’s an escape, Cruz says it's like his therapy and for Delgado the game is life.
Delgado has played since he was 2-years-old.
“I went to Irvington High School in Fremont, I played soccer at Fresno State,” he said.
He scored 28 goals in four years.
“I was drafted to the L.A Galaxy, I played for four or five teams,” he said.
The longest run was nine years with the Puerto Rico Islanders where he was also a captain.
“I was also captain of the Puerto Rico national team through two World Cup qualifiers,” said Delgado.
Rarely on the sidelines as a player, it’s now where he spends every practice and game in his first year as the Oakland Roots' head coach.
He has deep roots in Northern California and is making it his mission to give back to the new generations of soccer players.
“I was in their shoes, like literally in their shoes,” said Delgado.
A kid from Fremont chasing his dream.
“Soccer is not always easy. You get traded, you get cut, but I think my experience with that I can definitely help these guys and show them direction and give them guidance,” said Delgado.
It’s something his mom Gena saw in him from an early age.
“Just his patience to teach them. He’s just been with soccer since he’s 2-years-old,” said Gena. “He’s always loved the game. He’s played for so many years professionally it was time to coach.”
"Soccer and the community is part of his family, they are his extended family," said his father, Mario.
His first mentee was his younger brother Eli.
“Noah [for] my whole life was a great mentor growing up. With the players I know for sure he brings in a professional atmosphere, he brings in everything about business and giving back to the community,” said Eli.
The two-year age difference made them teammates for life.
“It’s a dream to be able to play with your brother. Growing up, he was nothing but great for me... the times of us training alone at Irvington in Fremont, us going to different places, Fresno State we played, and then going to Puerto Rico to sign a contract and he was right there with me. I couldn’t ask for more in a brother,” said Eli.
His father Mario was one of his first coaches. Now, he gets to see his son in the role.
“This was his dream from when he was young. At one time he said he wanted to coach a team in the Bay Area and he’s accomplished that,” said Mario.
The Oakland Roots were created in 2018 and began signing players in 2019, including young Latinos from Northern California. Those efforts continue through Project 510 targeting young local players hoping to become professional soccer players.
“I’m pretty sure that someone in the crowd tonight that one day will possibly be with first team with the Oakland Roots,” said Delgado.
That dream became a reality for 18-year-old Kieran Bracken Serra from Berkeley at the rivalry game against Sacramento Republic FC.
“A player like me — if there wasn’t a Project 510 — I wouldn’t have the opportunity, the tryouts for coaches to look at me for a professional team if I’m just playing for a local club,” said Serra.
Serra says he’s looking forward to the opportunity for more coaching from Delgado.
“I like his coaching because he brings confidence to me, always positive, never negative, always in a good mood,” said Serra.
Roots Captain Emrah Klimenta says he can see Delgado’s guidance in the rookies on the field.
“He’s given those younger players confidence. He speaks to us from a players perspective, not so much as a coach, and I think a lot of guys buy into that and appreciate that,” said Klimenta.
For Klimenta, his relationship with Delgado is not only coach and player, but former team captain to a current one.
“Being a leader now even more so. I’ve always considered myself a leader, but he’s always telling me, 'Be the voice, be the guy that integrates that oomph, that energy,' he’s just been very positive,” said Klimenta.
Delgado has always been a coach, even as a player he trained youth teams. Along with his second assistant coach Dannylo Ayllon, who is also the head coach of Project 510, the two use Project 510 to give kids opportunities they never had growing up.
“When I was younger, there was nowhere to go if you wanted to play professional. You had to leave, you had to go to another country but thankfully now with Roots and Project 510, you have this direct link to play professionally,” said Ayllon.
Born in Mexico, Ayllon moved with his parents to the U.S. when he was nine, growing up in Fruitvale and Alameda he played at Cal State East Bay where the Roots now host their games. It's a true full circle moment.
“I fell in love with the idea of helping kids that I could see myself in them because I always wanted to have some sort of mentor,” said Ayllon. “Me being able to help my local community and immigrant kids, which I was an immigrant kid, is a dream come true."
Today he defines wins not by goals, but by helping local kids get their shot.
“When I saw Etsgar [Cruz] make his debut is one of the proudest moments of my coaching career, not winning titles," he said.
Etsgar Cruz and Daniel “Danny” Gomez are two local kids turned pros thanks to Project 510.
Cruz is from Modesto and was 17-years-old when we interviewed him in August. He made his professional debut before legally becoming an adult.
Fellow rookie midfielder Daniel Gomez is one of the first players from Project 510 to make it onto a USL League One team.
“I went to college at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock and I’m from Manteca,” said Gomez.
For Cruz, Gomez and Delgado; their connection is deeper than representing the same team, but sharing a similar culture. All were introduced to the game they love by their fathers.
“I feel like they are linked because every weekend, every Hispanic dad is watching the game. You go to any Hispanic house [and] there is always soccer on the television,” said Cruz.
For Gomez, the game is a connection to his family roots being first generation.
“My dad was born in Mexico, grew up in Mexico, so over there it's all soccer and he took that culture and brought it over to me and I think that’s how the two intertwine,” said Gomez. “Just by him being in the streets playing and kind of showing me the game at an early age, me playing with my friends growing up, so it’s just culture being brought down generations."
So while Noah Delgado may no longer be on the field, a true athlete knows a legacy can live on in players that come after you.
“To show them what this beautiful game can give... it’s given me everything and now these young players, we are helping them giving them a platform,” he said.
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