Santa Clarita Blue Heat: A hotbed for ladies’s soccer expertise

As Alyssa Thompson grinned and grimaced her manner by way of a sequence of interviews following Thursday’s NWSL draft, a squat man with a salt-and-pepper beard and black hair graying across the temples stood within the shadows and smiled.

As the primary highschool participant chosen with the highest decide within the draft and the youngest participant to affix the nationwide crew in additional than six years, Thompson, 18, is U.S. Soccer’s latest superstar phenom, the newest in a listing that begins with Mia Hamm and consists of 70 ladies who made their worldwide debuts as youngsters.

The person watching from the shadows performed an enormous position in getting her there.

Carlos Marroquin, 55, a former Guatemalan youth worldwide whose profession led to harm earlier than it actually acquired began, runs probably the most fascinating and influential ladies’s soccer membership you’ve in all probability by no means heard of. Final season the Santa Clarita Blue Heat’s roster featured a future NCAA champion, nationwide crew gamers from Armenia and Canada, a future Rose Parade queen in Bella Ballard in addition to Thompson and her sister Gisele, a starter within the U-17 World Cup final fall.

Previous groups have included Venezuela’s Deyna Castellanos, who completed third in voting for FIFA’s ladies’s participant of the 12 months; nationwide crew captains from Costa Rica and Portugal; a four-time Finnish participant of the 12 months; a Chilean World Cup participant who can be a mannequin; and greater than a half-dozen school All-People.

“It is really nice to know, as a college coach, that we have these [people] such as Carlos that are kind of still looking out for the best interests of our players and really looking out for their health, for their development,” mentioned UCLA coach Margueritte Aozasa, whose program has despatched a number of gamers Marroquin’s manner.

The Blue Heat, which performs within the second-tier United Girls’s Soccer league, fill an important area of interest within the sport’s panorama, Aozasa mentioned. School and highschool coaches are prohibited from working with their gamers for a lot of the summer time, so groups like Marroquin’s have stepped as much as present a aggressive surroundings for gamers to proceed their improvement.

U.S. soccer stars Alex Morgan, left, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo pose with Carlos Marroquin in an undated picture.

(Carlos Marroquin)

“Carlos does a really nice job. He understands the role that those teams play in helping and assisting the college programs, providing players those minutes and games. He’s very accommodating,” mentioned Aozasa, who led UCLA to its second nationwide championship final fall.

“He does a nice job of bringing in top-level talent. So even if the teams they’re playing against aren’t as high level, the players they’re playing with tend to be. We definitely kind of lean on teams like that over the summer because it fills a gap that we really have no control over.”

That wasn’t a task Marroquin envisioned for himself when a customer to his small Newhall soccer store requested if he can be prepared to assist handle a fledging crew known as the Rooks. On the time Marroquin had little curiosity in ladies’s soccer, however he may acknowledge a catastrophe when he noticed one.

“What I saw was no support,” Marroquin mentioned. “I said we have to do something for these girls.”

A 12 months later, in 2010, Marroquin was approached with one other provide. This time he was requested to take over the struggling Ventura Fusion, a ladies’s crew that performed within the second-division USL W-League. His response was just about the identical: If he needed the game to develop, he needed to do one thing to assist. So he accepted the provide, moved the crew to Santa Clarita, rechristened it the Blue Heat, and a 12 months later received his first convention title. Marroquin was smitten.

Carlos Marroquin stands in Planet Soccer, his store in Newhall.

Carlos Marroquin stands in Planet Soccer, his retailer in Newhall. Marroquin has owned the shop for the previous 19 years.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Occasions)

“I started to be in love with women’s soccer,” he mentioned. “I’ve been the solo owner since Day 1. I haven’t had help from anybody. Basically it’s myself.

“When you have passion for something, you keep going. In this division, in this level, nobody’s going to make money. I don’t have any profit. But at least I help girls to be pros.”

Women like Olivia Moultrie, who used to go to the shop along with her father when she was in grade faculty and ask for recommendation. Now she performs for the Portland Thorns alongside Natalia Kuikka, who helped the Blue Heat reached the UWS championship sport in 2017. Ashley Sanchez went from the Blue Heat to the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. Ana Borges went from the Blue Heat to Spanish big Atletico Madrid, and later to Chelsea.

But one of the best of the lot is likely to be Thompson, who was a thin, unpolished 14-year-old when she first met Marroquin. Now she’s acquired a three-year assured contract with Angel Metropolis. She was certainly one of seven former Blue Heat gamers among the many 48 ladies drafted Thursday, with ex-teammate Penelope Hocking additionally going within the first spherical when the Chicago Pink Stars chosen her with the seventh total decide.

No school program noticed greater than three of its gamers drafted Thursday.

Since starting play within the UWS in 2016, the league’s inaugural season, the Blue Heat have received two titles, the latest coming in 2021. As a lot as Marroquin likes successful, that’s not why the crew exists. And as a lot as he’d prefer to personal an NWSL crew, his ardour lies with gamers firstly of their climb to stardom, not with those that are already there.

“I had to be realistic,” he mentioned. “I’m never going to be an owner for any professional team. It’s impossible to buy a team myself, and to be part of another team will be impossible. They want people with a lot of money, right?”

So Marroquin helps on the grassroots stage, stocking his roster with native highschool and school gamers or European-based execs reminiscent of Portugal’s Edite Fernandes and Bulgaria’s Evi Popadinova, who have been on the lookout for a spot to play.

Now Marroquin has begun utilizing his connections in one other manner, turning into a U.S. and Latin America scout for A&V Sports activities Group, a worldwide company that represents Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg in addition to greater than 30 different gamers — together with Thompson — from 13 nations.

“I prefer being a scout because I don’t represent anybody. I send players to good teams,” he mentioned. “I love what I do, I do what I love.”

It began with the Blue Heat, which performs a 10-game regular-season schedule in late spring/early summer time. The crew used venues everywhere in the Santa Clarita Valley earlier than settling at School of the Canyons, the place it has begun drawing sturdy — for the UWS — crowds.

“Before we’d have 50 people in the stadium. Now we have over 500 per game,” he mentioned. “You have 500 people in Santa Clarita at a game, it’s crazy.”

That following has grown as a result of the crew has. When your roster yearly consists of future nationwide crew gamers like Sanchez and Thompson, that helps with advertising and marketing the crew.

“The team is starting to get more prestigious. People are starting to have more interest,” Marroquin mentioned. “So the coaches from D1 are starting to trust me. When you start something, it’s hard to trust somebody.

“We are the future pros. You want to see somebody next year playing pro, this will be a good chance. They play for us first, and then they play pro.”