L.A. youth academy bringing together Latino heritage while growing U.S. game

LOS ANGELES -- In a city known for realizing and breaking dreams, Los Angeles is home to nearly 5 million Latinos, or about 9 percent of the Hispanic population of the United States, according to Pew Research.

Amid the melting pot, Alberto Villegas wanted to add something from his native Mexico after he immigrated to California. Villegas saw an opportunity in building soccer pitches, laying the foundation for a soccer academy.

"It was the biggest challenge for me. Not only coming into this country but also bringing this culture into youngsters," said Villegas as his athletes got ready for practice. "Soccer is not experienced in the United States in the same way we experience it in our countries. However, I've had a dream, for over a decade, of promoting passion for this sport and, bit by bit, we are starting to reap the fruits of our effort."

Villegas' academy, Tiburones Rojos USA, was named after the professional soccer team of his beloved Veracruz. This hotbed of local young soccer promises has put a share of budding players on the pitch. Villegas' own son, Daniel, is one of them, having played in the LA Galaxy farm system, and worn the United States jersey as part of the U-17 national team.

"It is an honor for me to be a Mexican; however, I've been fortunate enough to represent the country where I was born," said the young Villegas. "The United States has been the place of birth for all of my personal efforts, and it has witnessed my growth as a soccer player. I'm proud of being able to wear both countries' uniforms."

Daniel Villegas has been fortunate. Others contend with various other issues as newly arrived immigrants. Three in the academy are so-called "Dreamers", born in Mexico and brought to the United States as young children. Striker Juan Gonzalez is one of them.

"I was born in Mexico. My mother came along with me when I was six years old. I don't know any country other than this one," Gonzalez said. "It is a pity that we have to deal with stuff like this in these times we live in. That's why I shield myself in soccer. It has become a source of strength for me, for finding ways of not giving up despite all of these adversities. There are no immigration laws able to stop a soccer ball from running back and forth."

Tiburones Rojos USA play in the adult amateur United Premier Soccer League's (UPSL) Southwest Conference. The team practices at a high school in the Rosemead neighborhood of Los Angeles county. An improvised lighting set, built on a series of construction towers, illuminates the pitch. The academy has trained more than 400 youngsters from ages 8 to 19.

"We work with young kids because we have come to the conclusion that, in order to build a solid foundation for the future of soccer in this country, we have to start early," said Walter Loyola, who scouts for the U.S. Soccer Federation and assists the Tiburones Rojos USA in his spare time. "We are working with all the discipline any club will demand. There are no national flags here. We only want to do things the right way and go as far as we can."

Enjoy the full "Futbol in America" series

- Episode 4: Soccer thrives in the Big Apple
- WATCH: New York, where soccer never sleeps
- Episode 3: Dallas Cup's vital role in growing youth soccer
- WATCH: Dallas, the international takeoff
- Episode 2: Los Angeles academy bringing together Latino youth
- WATCH: LA inherits the American dream
- Episode 1: Miami ready to make its mark
- WATCH: Miami, the city with fans with no team

Loyola, who played in his native Argentina and coached in the farm system of the legendary club River Plate, said he keeps an eye out for Tiburones Rojos talent that could end up joining the brand-new MLS team LAFC.

The LAFC franchise, set to debut this year, already has a solid Latino fan base ready to fill the stands to cheer Mexican star Carlos Vela.

"Over 70 percent of our LAFC supporter group is Hispanic," said Julio Ramos, leader of the Barra 3252 supporters of LAFC. "Many of them purchased their club membership right off the bat. We have Salvadorians, Mexicans, Colombians, Guatemalans, over a dozen different nationalities. We have been brought together by the passion of soccer.

"People will remember the stuff we are made of."