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Napa Sporting SC head coach Bernie Ochoa believes his men’s soccer team can improve on its United Premier Soccer League debut, a third-place finish in the Wild West Conference that earned it a playoff appearance.

“We’re satisfied with this year’s finish, but we aren’t going to be complacent about it,” Ochoa said. “We felt we could have done better, but obviously we didn’t. It was a question of limited personnel with the injuries we had week in and week out. I guess we can say we’re happy with it. It certainly could have been worse.”

The top six teams in the conference qualified for playoff spots. Sporting SC ended up hosting the Chico City Rangers at the Napa High campus field, and lost 4-1 in a penalty kick shootout after being tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. It was the only home loss of the year for the Napa side, which got a goal from Enrique Hernandez and assist from Oscar Loyola.

“Shootouts are very unpredictable. It’s almost like flipping a coin,” lamented Ochoa. “But still, we made the playoffs and that was a positive considering where we started out.”

Ochoa said the players are taking a little time off before starting their training again in August.

“We don’t have much of an offseason, but we’re relaxing a little now after three, four months of non-stop training and games, and hope to have an end-of-the-year party soon. We’ll announce the local tryouts after we have a West Coast league summit on July 21, where we go over things for the fall season that starts in September.”

Ochoa believes there will be two or three new teams in the league soon.

“The UPSL has been growing drastically,” he said. “It went from 80 teams to almost 200 nationwide. Our region is growing a little more slowly, but eventually we will have to split our conference.”

Ochoa, a former two-time college All-American and player in the Mexican professional league, is optimistic about the future of Sporting SC after reviving the decades-old club.

“With it being our first year back, having a positive outcome all the way around was definitely something we can build from,” he said, noting that having a more dependable group of players throughout the season is the key to success more than anything. “We have a consistent 25 to 30 players on our roster, with a core group of seven or eight players who were always there for us, and that definitely helped us out.

“These are all local players who know each other from growing up here and playing together at the high school or club level. That helps with our team chemistry. Some top teams in our league will recruit international players by getting them worker visas and jobs. But that’s not how we do it. I have nothing against outside players, but our club uses only local talent.”

Ochoa never felt limiting his roster to local talent ever hurt its chances of winning.

“I honestly believe we can compete and beat the top teams if we have all of our players healthy, but every game we had a different 11 this season,” he said. “Part of that is also not everyone can travel when we are going places like Oregon, Nevada, Visalia, even Chico. We didn’t lose a game at home, except for the playoff game.”

Contrary to what some people may believe, Sporting SC players are amateurs, not paid professionals.

“Our players play for the love of the game,” Ochoa said. “Because of that, it’s hard to get players to commit 100 percent to what we’re doing. We’re happy if players commit to practicing a couple of days a week and then playing on the weekends. My youngest player this year was 16 and my oldest was 34. A lot of the older guys are working and raising families.”

The native Napan is no stranger to the local soccer scene. The 1998 Vintage High graduate and 2002 alum of Concordia University, Nebraska has coached girls or boys soccer at Vintage since 2003, winning nine Monticello Empire League titles and two CIF Sac-Joaquin Section boys crowns. His Vintage boys have gone 139-26-16 overall and his girls – which he stopped coaching after spring 2016 – went 156-80-49 overall. He has also coached boys club teams to two US Club National Cup titles in five appearances.

“I’ve coached at Vintage High for the last 17 years, so I know most of these local players,” said Ochoa. “If I haven’t coached them, I’ve probably coached against them. Knowing the players coming in makes it easier for me.”

Ochoa believes the team is gradually building a strong fan base.

“We got good support from the community this season,” he said. “Slowly but surely, people are coming out to the games. It’s easier for us when we have sponsors and the fans with us. Our club has 40-plus years of tradition in Napa and we want to make sure the Sporting name means something – and for us, that means all local players.

“We even have third-generation players descendant from the first Sporting players decades ago. Those players originally made their first soccer field on a chicken ranch near St. Helena.”

Speaking of venues, Sporting SC is looking for a permanent home for its games in the fall.

“Right now were playing our games all over – Justin-Siena, Napa High and American Canyon High,” he said. “Sporting used to play all of its games at Napa Valley College on real grass and that’s what we would like to do, so we’ll be talking to the people out there. People associate us with that field because we played there for years.”

Sporting SC’s ownership group includes himself, Debbie Weston, and Fernando and Monica Lopez. Fernando Lopez, like Ochoa, is a former Sporting player.

“We’re not looking to make money, we just want to give our talented youth a place to excel. We do it all with a four-person team,” Ochoa said. “I can’t say it’s been easy. But when the players are doing what we ask, we take pride in that. They’re passionate about it because we all represent our community.”

Ochoa has an opinion about why U.S. national teams still lag behind other countries, and did not qualify for this year’s World Cup.

“The soccer pyramid in the U.S. doesn’t work as well as it does in other countries, where it is a smooth progression from top to bottom. In this country, we have (Major League Soccer) and they work by themselves. Then there is everyone else,” he explained.

Being in the fourth tier of that pyramid in the UPSL, Sporting SC relies on the community to succeed.

“We could really use some more local sponsors and skilled volunteers,” Ochoa said. “We could really use a physical therapist or trainer, or even an orthopedic surgeon, on the sidelines. We need to have something like that. Not every sponsor supplies us with money but they will give us free services, which really help.”

Potential volunteers, sponsors and players interested in finding out more about Napa Sporting SC should contact all Ochoa at brnochoa9@yahoo.com or 694-8308. Tryouts for the fall season will be announced soon.

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