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Q&A: San Juan South Youth Director of Coaching Carmen Padilla

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 South Youth Director of Coaching Carmen Padilla. After a standout club soccer career at Juventus in Redwood City, Padilla moved on to star for both the University of the Pacific and the Mexican National Team. Following her playing career, Padilla joined the coaching staff of her alma mater before making the move to San Juan South recently. In addition to her club roles, Padilla serves on the NorCal Premier Soccer Women’s Committee where she heads its Latina Outreach Initiative.

NorCal: Growing up, you didn’t play club soccer until later, relative to most who have had as successful of a playing career as you. How did you develop as a younger player?

Padilla: I fell in love with soccer early on. My dad played in a men’s open league and also coached a men’s team so every weekend it was a choice between staying home and doing chores with my mom or going to the field with my dad. I would always have a ball at my feet and I’m one of six so my siblings were always around and we were always playing with each other. I remember just always playing soccer on the sidelines or at school during recess with the boys. I lived in a large apartment complex so every day after school, everybody would meet in the center of the complex and we would just play street soccer. No coaches, no rules, we just enforced the game ourselves. It was mainly boys. My brother is two years younger than me and he was very good so the boys kind of had to let me play if they wanted him to play. I also played recreational soccer up until I was 12 and then we were at a soccer field once and a competitive coach asked me if I’d like to come guest play for me. He was a Juventus coach named Jose and he kind of was the one who pushed me to try to play competitive soccer. I went and guest played for him and then eventually ended up joining his team and that’s where everything took off for me. I’m very thankful for Jose. Soccer has given me countless opportunities, otherwise my life would have turned out way different — it got me to stay in school and out of trouble.

NorCal: Do you think that our soccer culture has lost something in that there aren’t really that many more of these unstructured pickup games that you grew up playing?

Padilla: I remember being outside all day long, playing until our mothers called us in for dinner. Nowadays, as a parent of three children, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with letting my kids be in the street all day. That’s an aspect that’s changed and taken away from street soccer. I do think that trainings have improved and coaches are way better and more equipped to challenge players as best as they can, but I think that element of playing (in the street), enforcing your own rules, trying to meg everybody, just laugh a little bit…that we need to find a way to bring back into our game so kids can just have fun playing street soccer with their friends.

NorCal: You enjoyed a standout career at the University of the Pacific, but how did you end up in the Mexican National Team program?

Padilla: My brother signed a contract with Chivas at the age of 13. His agent called my dad and said, “hey, we have a youth women’s tournament in Mexico, they don’t have enough female teams to fill the eight-team tournament.” You know, the stereotypical roles in Mexico are that the women stay at home and take care of the children. So they were trying to grow the game of soccer for females in Mexico. Long story short, they needed to fill another spot in this tournament, so my dad told (my brother’s agent) that my team would go. We ended up going to Guadalajara for the tournament and in the tournament the U17 Women’s National Team was playing and we got to play against them. It was a wonderful trip but when I was there they approached me and asked me if I had dual citizenship. They had me fill out an informational form, but I didn’t think anything of it and just went back home. Two weeks later my dad got a phone call asking if I wanted to come down for a training camp and I was pretty excited but nervous at the same time. I remember the day that I left, my dad gave me $500, which was the most money I’d ever had before and said, “if no one shows to pick you up, just buy a ticket back home.” I’d never been out of the country by myself, but that’s how it started. I was supposed to be gone for a one week trial but ended up staying for three months and made the squad for the U20 World Cup in Canada. It was a really exciting time. I just worked my way up from the U19s to the U20s to the full national team. It wasn’t easy, but it was a journey that I’ll cherish for forever, the memories and the players and the experiences that I got to live were amazing.

NorCal: After your playing career was over, you started your coaching career as an assistant for UoP. When you were going out to tournaments or showcases during that time, what qualities were you looking for in a player?

Padilla: Players nowadays are just all so talented. Technically and tactically, they’re very well-coached. One of the big things for me that’s a difference maker that we looked at is their character and by that I mean how they react when their team goes down a goal, how they react when their teammate gives them a bad pass, how they talk to their mom after the game. It’s those little things. We want the kid who, after their team gets scored on, lifts their team up. We want those competitive aspects to come out as well as a good teammate that shows fighting spirit. (What we’re looking for are) those character traits that not everybody has that will separate them when things get hard in the collegiate game and push them and help their team win because at the end of the day, unfortunately, you live and die by the losses.

NorCal: You’re a member of NorCal’s Women’s Committee and head its Latina Outreach Initiative. Tell us more about what you’re doing there.

Padilla: First of all, I want to thank NorCal for its commitment to the Women’s Committee and (Committee Chair) Erin Sharpe has been such a pioneer in advocating in our behalf. The Women’s Committee’s main goal is the recruitment and retention of female coaches to grow the game and increase the number of female coaches, players, and even referees and fans of the game. There’s different aspects that the Women’s Committee has. We have a women’s scholarship initiative that provides scholarships for female coaches to go and get coaches licenses. The most recent thing we’ve started is the Latina Outreach Initiative which is really near and dear to my heart, being a Latina who has had soccer provide endless opportunities. The goal is to increase the number of Latina girls playing soccer in Northern California as well as encourage Latinas to enter the coaching profession. Statistics show that that a lot of females, not just Latinas, quit soccer in high school. We’re trying to reverse that trend and help them develop a love for the game when they’re young so that they’ll continue playing throughout their career. What we’ve been doing is partnering with college campuses around NorCal. We’re trying to host a free clinic in each region for all Latina girls, just young girls in general. We do a meet and greet with college athletes so they can get pictures and sign autographs and then we have free admission to a collegiate women’s soccer game. We’re exposing them to the opportunities that are there for females in the collegiate game as far as scholarships and obtaining an education to better themselves. We’ve also started free grassroots coaching courses for college players to catch them when they’re young and excited about the game to encourage them to get into coaching as well as providing free referee courses to females. We’re just trying to increase the number of players, coaches, referees, and everybody to try to make the game better. I think it’s really important for females to have role models that look like them. If you can see her, you can strive to be her. It’s really important to help grow the game in that aspect.

NorCal: Shifting over to your club, San Juan South, how have you guys been navigating this whole situation with COVID-19?

Padilla: We’re affiliated with San Juan out of Sacramento which has done a tremendous job of organizing stuff during this difficult time. We have coaching education every Monday as a group, on Tuesdays we have Teammate Tuesdays where you pair up with a teammates and challenge each other on a technique app that the whole club is a part of. Wednesdays we’ve been doing Zoom training with our teams, and then on Thursdays we have a speaker come in, whether it’s an alum or a psychologist or something just for the players so they can hear from somebody else and talk about the things that they’re going through. It’s really been a lot of great programming that we’ve done club-wide. Saturdays they have a live session on their Instagram with a professional player that comes in. We’re really just trying to keep the kids active and engaged and communicating with each other. All these things can help distract them and just make them happy.

NorCal: What advice would you have for a youth player who can’t train with their team right now but still wants to make it to the highest level?

Padilla: I think this kind of time away from your team and the game is going to allow everybody to reconnect with their love of the game. Why do you play soccer? Why you coach soccer? A lot of times it takes something being taken away for you to reconnect with that. A college player who just finished their season, they miss it like crazy. Someone who gets injured, they miss it so much. Secondly, I think everyone can focus on their growth, kind of just making sure that their post-pandemic version of themselves is better than their pre-pandemic version. What little things can you do to make yourself better? Focus on the positives and what you can control instead of those you can’t. Can you improve your juggling record? Can you learn a new move? There’s all these YouTube videos out there and all these resources that allow you to become a better player technically. Just being able to get outside and work out and making sure you can control your fitness, that’s a really important thing. Aside from soccer, learn how to ride a bike, how to skateboard, learn one of your mom’s recipes, connect with a sibling. I have three kids so life can be hectic, you know, running from school to practice to making dinner. During this time, one of my kids learned how to skateboard and another one learned how to ride a bike. Thank goodness for this time we’ve had where we’ve gotten to spend time doing the things that you can’t do when you get caught up in the craziness of life. Just enjoy the time you have with those that you love the most while making yourself better and reconnecting with your love for the game.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?

Padilla: Throughout my life I’ve had many coaches and mentors that made such a big difference in my life and believed in me when I didn’t so I think it’s very important for coaches to realize the impact they have in each kids life and understand why they play soccer. Do they play for exercise, for friendship, to play at the collegiate level? Really understand each player’s needs and really realize the importance and difference that you make in each of their lives. I just want to thank all of the coaches for all the time they put into it and realize that they are really valuable in everyone’s lives. My coaches were really important in my life.