Academica Soccer Club has been a staple of the California Central Valley soccer community for more than 40 years. The club is located in Turlock, Calif. between the cities of Modesto and Merced, and while Academica has a rich history, 2019 will mark the first time they have qualified for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
Academica SC was founded in 1972 by a group of Portuguese immigrants who first came together to found Our Lady of Assumption Church in Turlock. The soccer club was created for the youth of the church to keep the culture and the tradition of their heritage ongoing. Over time, the club evolved into a full youth club with their own field located next to the church. Today, the club features both a boys’ and girls’ side, as well as a men’s team that competes nationally in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), as well as locally in Liga NorCal.
“There’s a few things that make us stand out in the lower division level of soccer, such as our own facilities and a full pyramid structure of teams, but the biggest thing that makes the club so special and unique is its people,” said club president Simon Bettencourt. “Not only the people that have been a part of the club for decades and built this team into what it is now, but also the new people who come out to support us and made the last US Open Cup match such a great atmosphere.”
Academica is known around Northern California for their large number of traveling fans, with as many as 50 or more fans traveling to away games in other NorCal cities. Additionally, the club recently established their own supporters group known as the Black and Gold Brigade. Those supporters made their presence felt in Academica’s final qualifying match, a dramatic penalty kick win over IPS/Marathon Taverna (Portland, Ore.), that clinched the club’s first-ever Open Cup berth.
The men’s team is led by longtime head coach Sergio Sousa who recalls watching his father play for the club as a boy. Sergio is also the assistant coach of the UC Merced men’s soccer program.
“It’s a big step for the club,” said Bettencourt. “Qualifying for the tournament shows the level of soccer we have in the area and adds to the high standard we want people to expect from the Central Valley. We’re hoping a deep run will shine some much-deserved attention on the talent we have here. We’re immensely proud to be representing the Valley on such a prestigious stage against top notch opponents.”
Academica began qualifying with a first round 4-1 win over fellow Liga NorCal side Davis Legacy back on Sept. 22. They were led on the night by a brace from Ramiro Ceja.
The club followed this up with a hard fought win on October 20 against another Liga NorCal side, Contra Costa FC. Led by a brace from Mane Villegas, the team jumped out to a 3-0 lead early in the second half. Contra Costa would fight back with two goals, but Academica would hold off the comeback and win the game, 3-2.
After having to reschedule the initial third round qualifier due to poor air quality caused by the Northern California wild fires, Academica would go on to advance 1-0 over a 10-man Oakland Stompers side with a goal from Ceja.
In the final round of qualifying, Academica would advance past Oregon club IPS/Marathon Taverna in a penalty kick shootout after the match finished 3-3 after extra time. It was one of the most dramatic games of the entire qualifying tournament. It looked as if the visitors were going to spoil Academica’s chances of punching their ticket as IPS led 2-0 heading into the 90th minute. However, Brennan Canfield pulled one back in the 90th, and Manuel Villegas pounced on a loose ball in the box five minutes into stoppage time to tie the game. After falling behind again in extra time, Gerardo Cazares would score directly from a free kick four minutes into stoppage time of the second extra time period to force penalty kicks. Academica goalkeeper Alonso Lara would make a couple of huge saves to help put his side into the US Open Cup proper with a 3-1 shootout victory.
“It was quite the rollercoaster ride,” said Bettencourt. “I was actually watching the last few minutes of regulation from behind our bench so when those two goals went in we went off and again when Gera scored that free kick, it was all a blur. Penalty kicks were gut wrenching but the feeling of euphoria after the match, celebrating with our players and fans on the field, is a feeling I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon.”
By qualifying, Academica SC is the only team that will take part in the US Open Cup from US Club Soccer, putting an end to a minor drought where the organization didn’t have a representative in the last two tournaments.
Academica features a few keys players who have helped them qualify and have been instrumental in the team’s league success. The team’s top scorer from last season is back, and last year won NPSL Player of the Week honors twice in 2018. The second of those awards came from a four-goal performance against Sonoma County Sol.
Alonso Lara has stepped in as the starting goalkeeper in his first season with the club. Lara brings experience playing in Mexico with Celaya FC, a club that played in the Mexican Second and Third Divisions, and a variety of NPSL clubs in Southern California, as well as a few stops with some arena soccer teams. Lara was also a finalist, and the last goalkeeper remaining, in season two of the soccer talent show Sueno MLS where players competed to earn a roster spot with Chivas USA or FC Dallas.
Midfielder Gerardo Cazares is the captain and scored two goals in the qualifying tournament. Ceja, who played his college ball at nearby Stanislaus State University, is one of the biggest reasons why the team qualified as he scored three goals in the competition, including the game-winner against the Oakland Stompers.
Academica are set to face former US Open Cup Champions El Farolito in Round 1 in a match up featuring the second and third-oldest clubs participating in the tournament.