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Q&A: San Juan SC Director of Coaching Zeca Neto

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 San Juan Soccer Club Director of Coaching Zeca Neto. A native of Brazil, Neto has been involved in the coaching scene in Northern California for over 20 years now. A high level youth player, Neto represented some of the top clubs in Rio before moving to the United States and becoming a full time coach. He currently holds a USSF National “A” License.

NorCal: How did you fall in love with the game of soccer?

Neto: Growing up in Brazil, you learn how to love the sport…it’s just something that for me growing up around it, it was part of my culture. In the 80s growing up and watching the Brazilian National Team, everywhere you looked there was soccer. It’s a way of life down there. For me it’s always been in my blood. Coming here after my playing years, you’re trying to find a way to pay back what soccer has given you. I stumbled into coaching, which I’m so grateful for, that I can give back what has given me.

NorCal: In the United States we have this perception that kids growing up in Brazil are playing pickup games all the time and the culture is completely focused around soccer. Is that what the experience was like for you or was it different?

Neto: We normally checked in for school around 8 o’clock, but I used to get to school at 6 in the morning to play pickup games. It wasn’t only me, it was everyone in my class. We would check in at 6 to play soccer for two hours before the bell rang and then also at recess and then after school. After school, most of the kids I grew up with, we all played club growing up so we had our club sessions in the evenings. That was Monday through Friday and then on Saturday you had games. Your day off was maybe Sunday because you went to the stadium to watch a game, but no matter what, there was still some soccer involved on Sunday. It was just part of my upbringing.

NorCal: What club do you support in Brazil?

Neto: Flamengo was always my club growing up but I never got a chance to play for them. I played for Fluminese and Bangu, who are first division in Rio.

NorCal: Wait, so you played for your favorite club’s rivals?

Neto: Exactly…I did try out multiple times for Flamengo, with no luck. I mean, Flamengo, during that time that I grew

Zeca Neto

up were the club that everyone wanted to be a part of. Fluminese was also one of the biggest clubs at the time and they had one of the best youth academies in Rio. They’re still one of the biggest youth academies in the world in terms of developing players. It was hard going to training and playing for Fluminese and then on Sunday going and watching Flamengo play.

NorCal: What brought you over to the United States?

Neto: My dad actually started a business here back in the 80s so we always went back and forth between the two countries. We’d been back and forth for years but it wasn’t until around 94 or 95 when I had some injuries and becoming a pro in soccer was becoming further and further away from happening.

NorCal: When did you start coaching here?

Neto: The way coaching came to me was that I used to play some pickup games at Sac State and I met two people that I’m very thankful to this day for because they were the ones who got me into coaching. Frank Ramirez was the first person that took a chance on me to help out with his team and then I started coaching my first team in the Davis Youth Soccer League with Carlos Casteneda.

NorCal: When did you get to San Juan?

Neto: I got to San Juan in 1999 and was brought here by (current Cal State Stanislaus coach) Gabe Bolton, who was running the girls program here at the time. Gabe brought me in and trusted me. Gabe and Phil Wright were the two guys who brought me over and I’ve been here since then.

NorCal: What do you think has changed since 1999 in the youth game in this country?

Neto: I think that the Benjamin Ziemer’s of the world, the Shawn Blakeman’s, the Paolo Bonomo’s, as NorCal Premier Soccer as a whole have created a much better environment for our region. I think they have really pushed people to be better every day. I believe that the environment that you operate and compete in is going to dictate a lot of what you do as a club. For San Juan,  building a soccer complex and continuing to develop and educate our staff helps drive some of the changes.  Soccer has become, since the day I got here, more professionalized. There are more people now who are full time, more people who have the time to invest back into the clubs with the kids. When I started in 1999, very few clubs even had directors of coaching. Most of the clubs had directors of coaching, but they didn’t have multiple directors, but when you look all around us, every single club has two-to-three directors. We’re a lot more professional in what we do and a lot of that is credit to NorCal pushing people, clubs, coaches to be better and shaping the environment to change. NorCal Leadership has challenged us at San Juan to improve our club and rather than feel sorry for ourselves we have tried to rise to those challenges and now seek feedback about what we can continue to improve. The coaching education opportunities that we have been afforded are incredible compared to 20 years ago. Right before COVID-19 hit I went to the La Liga course with Ben Ziemer and Ian Mork.We were in Madrid getting lectures by Francisco Rufete and Unai Emery. We’re just so blessed to have these opportunities.

NorCal: Is there anything from your upbringing playing soccer in Brazil that you like to instill into your players today?

Neto: Just the joy of playing soccer. Developing a love of the game in players is something that I try to do every day when I get to work. When you love something, you have a tendency to spend more energy, more time, more resources. People say If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Every day I go in and I don’t look at training kids as my job, I’m just thankful that I have the opportunity to do what I love.

NorCal: What has your club done during the COVID-19 pandemic to adapt and continue to help your players in an unprecedented situation?

Neto: On March 11th when everything got shut down, none of us expected what was to come. We had no idea how long it was going to be. No one had a plan so we were just taking it week-by-week, until we realized we needed a plan. Our staff worked really hard, I think the hardest that our staff has worked in a long time in trying to make things better. From Zoom training to the college recruiting piece, we, like everyone else, took everything virtual. We created a virtual college showcase to get our players in front of college coaches. We had a highlight video of each kid and we worked hard to get information to the college coaches to make sure that our kids were still being seen because most of our kids lost at least two showcases during that time. We also went on and ran three days a week of virtual training. Our goal was simple: keep our players engaged. Outside of training we brought in Professional Players, Janine Becky (Man City), Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United), and Adam Jahn (Atlanta United). We also brought in San Juan Alum and Nike Executive Alicia Jenkins. We wanted to stay engaged with our kids because we felt that it was difficult for the players but also the coaches too. Being in quarantine was something that we didn’t know how to deal with so we felt that we had to stay engaged with the players, but also maximize a great opportunity for us to work with our staff from a coaching education standpoint. We met with our staff once a week via Zoom and we brought in 12 guest speakers during that time. We brought people like Luchi Gonzalez and Mikey Varas from FC Dallas, Greg Vanney from Toronto FC, and the U17 National Team coach from Brazil, to name a few…we started making phone calls to people we had relationships with because this was a great opportunity to educate our coaches. We wanted to make sure that we provided that to our staff and make sure that our coaches were engaged with not only our members but also with our kids.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?

Neto: For us it was a great time to reflect as a club. I’m truly blessed with our staff, the people that I have around me because in times like this, you can’t do it by yourself. For me having Technical Director Matt Bernard and ECNL Diretor Bernardo Silva, from a leadership standpoint was essential for the club. If you don’t have a quality group of coaches and board members, I don’t think you can do anything like we have during these challenges.