There’s still piles of gritty, week old snow melting by the door of a non-descript warehouse in Central Jersey, next to a strip mall and across from a Laborers Union Hall. The town of Cliffwood, New Jersey is about as far away from Tijuana as you can get - 2,775 miles according to Google Maps. It’s just before 10:00 AM when I pull into the warehouse parking lot and walk in, where I’m introduced to Joe DiMauro. Joe is an affable man, and he and his adult son Phil run Xolos Academy FC New Jersey - an affiliate of Club Tijuana.
Inside the entire floor is covered in synthetic turf, and there are nets at either end of the building. There’s a small foot-tennis net set up in the middle of the field, and Elvis Crespo’s Suavemente is playing over the loudspeakers. Soon enough some kids shuffle in, parents in tow. All of them stop by and say good morning to the DiMauros, shaking their hands - and mine too.
Joe DiMauro has been a coach for a long time in these parts. “I've been training and coaching youth soccer for almost 30 years in New Jersey area,” DiMauro tells me as the group of kids start to play foot tennis “mainly doing it just to train kids that didn't have a lot of funds or the kind of resources to get involved in advanced clubs.” All of that changed when he met a local soccer parent named Carlos Moreno. “We became good friends over the years, and spent a lot of time training his young son Amando.”
Amando Moreno is the former New York Red Bulls Academy player that was signed by the Red Bulls as a Homegrown Player - one that the club brought up through their academy system as opposed to drafting from college. Moreno spent the 2013 season with the Red Bulls, but only made a handful of appearances with the club. “Through affiliations with people in the family plus Paul Arriola... I think the two of them first met at the U.S. National Team camp, and Paul kind of convinced him. ‘Hey, why don’t you come to Tijuana with me? Why don't you check it out? It's a better training environment.’ “ DiMauro tells me. “So after deliberations with his father, who was very involved in the process, (Moreno) decided to make the move to go to Tijuana - which is a big decision. He was going out there on his own at 17 years old.”
Since joining Tijuana, Moreno has made mostly Copa MX appearances for the club, but his imprint on this academy is indelible - posters of him hang behind the far goal next to where the kids continue to play foot-tennis. It dawns on me that not one stray ball has come our way yet. DiMauro continues, “Along the way somehow or another in my conversations back and forth, I noticed there was Academy system and they were setting something up here in this country. I contacted the academy director, and we talked and we came to the conclusion it would be a great idea to do something here in New Jersey. We had the (coaching) background, we had the training, we had a facility already... So I said ‘let's get something started.’ “
DiMauro and Moreno began networking with kids in some of the local ligas - intramural leagues that aren’t registered with the state or U.S. Soccer, made up of predominately Latino kids. “What happened when we hooked up with Tijuana and started working with those kids and families,” DiMauro says “We had already been training them for several years - not coaching games, but having weekly training sessions.”
The inroads into the Latino community - one historically ignored by the majority of youth soccer clubs - were laid over several years by DiMauro and Moreno. “(The) Club Tijuana partnership has helped greatly because it brings that name. It brings the connection, because when the kids are older we can send to either Chula Vista or even to Tijuana to work with their main Academies.”
It’s not just a pipeline of talent from New Jersey to Tijuana though. “On a more practical basis, we're really trying to do is get them in a position so that when they are in high school they can get looked at for college” DiMauro tells me. While they are always on the lookout for talent, they recognize that often times it’s a good way to keep kids out of trouble. “We don’t sit here and talk (about going) professional with them. It’s mainly about school.” Some of the kids are required to bring in their report cards to make sure they’re succeeding in school.
There’s a lot of soccer being taught though to be sure. The entire length of the interview is filled with the almost metronomic “thwack” of boots hitting a ball - the crowd of kids playing foot-tennis is now eight strong and the ball is rarely ever kicked too far out of play.
Felician “Feli” Csombok is the Academy Coach, and he’s been keeping a close eye on the kids playing foot-tennis. He tells me that the development aspect starts by assessing the kids’ skillsets based on age. “The younger the kid, the different things we need to work on” he says, adding that “by the time they hit ten to thirteen or fourteen, they need to have the technical ability of someone who’s twenty-five to thirty years old.” While this is counter what most youth programs teach, it’s easy to see his teaching in the kids playing foot-tennis. “We’re not so much focused on the physical aspects at a young age. Everything has to be with the ball. Everything has to be (focused on) touches, playing small-sided games. Once they get older, when they’re high schoolers and before college, now the physicality picks up a little bit.”
It’s how soccer is taught everywhere else but here in the United States, where it’s about raw athletics and hustle. Instead of working harder, Csombok is teaching the kids to work smarter. “Now they’re focusing more on tactics” he says, adding “You have to look at what works. You have to look at history, at which teams and which countries have developed the better players.”
“Look at the German way. The European way - even the Mexican way. They’re focused on creating something and making it work for them.” He cites Barcelona and how they develop their players as the model they’re following. He says that Tijuana has a close relationship with their academy, sending them material and offering support. “They’re in constant contact with us. We have a close relationship with them.”
The kids are still playing foot-tennis, and I ask him why they’re doing this before their first match. “Before you go into the match,” he says “if you haven’t been touching the ball, if you haven’t been juggling, you don’t have the ball confidence to be in the match.”
Before I leave, it dawns on me that this Academy in the warehouse in Central Jersey is really the embodiment of Xolos philosophy “El equipo sin fronteras” - the club without borders. Of course that’s easy when your city comprises part of the border. Hosting camps in Chula Vista - about 15 miles from Tijuana - is one thing. Investing in an Academy almost 3,000 miles away brings that philosophy to a much greater level.