Q&A: Project 51O Head Coach Dannylo Ayllon
Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition, we spoke with Project 51O Head Coach Dannylo Ayllon. Growing up in Northern California, Ayllon played youth soccer locally before starring for Cal State East Bay and playing for a variety of different professional teams in NorCal. Once his playing career finished, Ayllon became a youth coach before his successes led him to take over the job at Project 51O, the reserve team for USL Championship club Oakland Roots SC. Ayllon still remains in the youth coaching game with 1974 Newark FC as well.
NorCal Premier Soccer: How did you fall in love with soccer?
Dannylo Ayllon: How could I not? I was born in Guadalajara, which is a soccer crazy city and obviously country. My dad played professionally when he was young. My grandfather was a die hard Chivas fan, my dad was also a die hard Chivas fan so naturally I was going to grow up to be a die hard Chivas fan, but ironically my dad played for Atlas, which is the derby of the city. I played in the youth system of Atlas when I was really little, like U10, U11. I was playing with the arch rivals, but with my dad, soccer was always around, we always watched it and would go to the stadium. Everybody in my family is a huge Chivas fan so they would take me to the club and we’d stand outside to wait to see the players come out. During the 80s, Chivas had a really good team and I remember just having these iconic heroes and me just being able to watch them walk out. Just from the beginning, but then when we moved here to the US in 1990, it was a culture shock. There was no soccer whatsoever. I was out here and people would make fun of me and ask what soccer even was. I remember I had a PE teacher who said we were going to play soccer and we ended up playing Gaelic football. It was definitely a barren desert when I was little here. Thankfully, it kind of started picking up during the 94 World Cup and became more accepted. But that’s how I grew up, I’ve always been a soccer fan, I’ve always been a Chivas fan. The good thing is that Mexican soccer is always around so I was always able to watch some of my Chivas, even when we were out here in the beginning. That kept my connection to Mexico pretty alive, that’s always been a big part of it.
NorCal: You mentioned that there wasn’t much of a soccer landscape in Northern California when you were growing up. How did you find your pathway in the youth game and stay involved in the sport?
Ayllon: I grew up in two cities: Oakland and Alameda, which couldn’t be more opposite from one another even though they’re right next to each other. Oakland is definitely on the poorer side, and in those days had a heavy Mexican population full of recent immigrants. Then there was Alameda, which was more middle-to-upper class, which we weren’t, we were on the poorer side and had just come here with some family. Being a recent immigrant, my parents would work every day, all day and we didn’t speak a word of English. Soccer was definitely on the back burner because my parents were too busy so there was no way to even get us to play soccer. I was 10-years-old, so it just wasn’t going to happen. Later on, thankfully, in Alameda, there wasn’t a big Mexican community but there were limited pockets of immigrants. When I first came here, I was the only kid in ESL. There was no one else who didn’t speak English, just me and my brother. That was also difficult. As time went on, I remember, once I got to middle school, I found a little bit more pockets. And then in Alameda, there were a few big pockets of people who were from Afghanistan. We just gravitated toward each other because we all played soccer. That was the first time since I moved (that I really got to play soccer). When I got here I was in 4th grade so it wasn’t until middle school, 6th grade, 7th grade, where soccer came up again because my friends from Afghanistan had a soccer ball. That was my first soccer playing experience since I left Mexico and it was in an Afghan league. They would allow “foreigners” to help, so I was one of the “foreigners” who was allowed to play. Thankfully for them, I was able to play. Later on, I discovered that there was a rec league called Alameda Soccer Club and then a club called Bay Oaks, where I coached for many, many years, but at that time it was known as the competitive club. Being a recent immigrant, we felt that it was too expensive so I wasn’t able to play until I was older, but we stuck with Alameda in rec. I had coaches who had never played soccer in their lives, who were football coaches, but thankfully at least there was some sort of soccer and I was able to get into the league. My parents didn’t speak English so I made those phone calls, I filled out my own forms, I filled out my little brother’s form. It was an individual thing, my parents weren’t able to take us to games so we’d need rides. Alameda isn’t that big so sometimes I was able to walk to home games, but it was tough, at least as a recent immigrant it was tough for my brother and I to play soccer when we were at the younger ages. Once we got to high school it was a little bit different because we had more friends, but in the beginning it was tough.
NorCal: You’ve been coaching in Northern California for a while, when did you know that you wanted to stay involved with the game past your playing career?
Ayllon: The dream to play pro soccer was always around in my mind, I definitely tried. During that time there wasn’t really any soccer. I think the first professional team I heard of was the Chico Rooks. I would travel with a friend of mine three hours away just to try to play with them because there was nothing else. I played in college and in Sunday league and did well and I got scouted by some people and had a couple of different opportunities but they never really panned out so I played at Cal State East Bay. Afterwards, I trained with the Quakes a couple of times and then after that, I decided to help out my high school. I’ve always been really proud of the places I’ve been, I’m very big on community so I decided to help out my high school. When I played we had a football coach and no one knew that much so I said, “I might as well go out there.” That’s how my coaching started but it was very much on the side, I was coaching JV, but I still considered myself a player, but kind of coaching. As things started to progress, someone asked me to come help coach at another charter school in Oakland and that’s when I said, “okay, I think this is starting to get a little bit more serious.” Then I started coaching at Bay Oaks, which is a bigger club here in the Bay Area. And then the more I started coaching, the more I started to love it. I’ve always kind of seen the players as myself when I was little so that’s why I started to take more interest in it. What I loved about Bay Oaks…unfortunately in the US we have pay-to-play so it’s usually the richer kids or better off kids (who get to play), but Bay Oaks has always been known as a club that always gave scholarships to all these underserved communities and minorities so I would see a lot of kids from my community, from my background so I decided to stay around because I wish I had a coach like me when I was growing up. As I started to get older, that love of coaching started to fulfill the love I had for playing so I started finding myself coaching more and more and more and really watching games but not just for fun, just really studying the game from the tactical and technical sides. Before I knew it, I was coaching more than playing. I was coaching high school, I was coaching Bay Oaks, and then I started getting my licenses. I’ve just been, little-by-little, falling more and more in love with being able to teach and help kids. Not only on the soccer field, but also as people. If I can make them better soccer players, that’s awesome, but my big thing is trying to be a good role model, especially for my community. Hopefully they can see someone who’s a DACA guy, who’s on the older side, who can serve as an inspiration to them. And low and behold, I end up at Project 51O as the head coach.
NorCal: In your words, what would you say you and the Oakland Roots organization are trying to accomplish with Project 51O.
Ayllon: There are two big things about Project 51O. One, being able to develop players for the first team. Soccer is a business, that’s just the way it is. In order for any team to survive…you see this with my club, Chivas. Their big model is creating their own players. 51O is going to serve that for Roots, which is one of the main objectives, creating a pipeline for the first team and maybe one day having a majority of players in the first team come from 51O. But the other thing, which is equally as important, is serving the community that Oakland is. It’s what I’ve been talking about, having the makeup of Roots represent the community that we’re in. So having local kids coming through the pipeline and being able to play for their local club and in the process, not only creating soccer players, but helping make good, productive, members of our community who can help bring up the rest of the community with them – good people, good human beings who are hard-working and have good values and who can put Oakland’s name in maybe a nicer spot than maybe what its reputation is.
NorCal: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Ayllon: To me, the most important thing is what I’m trying to accomplish as a coach. I used to play, but that’s in the past and that doesn’t really help much. You could be the greatest player with the greatest accolades but be a horrible coach, so playing career doesn’t matter that much. Now, me being at 51O is a dream come true. My goal has always been to coach a youth club in a professional team because I know that’s the place where I can really help my people, just being able to be there to help produce future professionals. So that was my goal and thankfully things panned out and now I’m fulfilling that goal and as a bonus I’m also the second assistant for the first team, which is a whole different world that’s outstanding. I was never aiming for this, but that it happened is great. I’m learning more and more and it’s helping me become a better coach, which in turn, helps me be a better coach and role model for these guys coming up in 51O. That’s the most important thing, my role in the organization, which is to create good human beings and good soccer players.