I can still see it. I was in sixth or seventh grade, on a field trip to the California Science Center near downtown LA. I had just started training with the LAFC Academy, and now I was looking at a new stadium that was being built next to the science museum.
When I realized what it was, I was like, “Oh, that’s where I’m going to play one day.”
It’s a blessing to be a Homegrown Player. Some people aren’t sure what that means. I describe being a Homegrown Player as someone who starts out with a certain club’s academy and develops his level there until he arrives with the first team. Other sports don’t really have the same setup, so for non-soccer fans, I explain it like this: imagine going to a Dodgers youth camp when you’re in sixth grade and then continuing to go to that same camp every day until the Dodgers draft you and then one day you’re playing in Dodger Stadium.
It's a rare thing. For me, it’s especially unique because I’m from L.A. I was born and raised here. And now I get to play for the club that represents the heart of this city? It’s a dream.
My mom and dad came here from Guadalajara, Mexico, for the sole purpose of giving their children a better life than the one they had. I grew up in El Monte, east of downtown L.A. A lot of Mexicans, a lot of Latin people there. A lot of things are going on in El Monte— a lot of good and maybe not so good. Every city has its bad parts and its good parts and El Monte is that way. I love El Monte. I have a special place in my heart for everyone who’s from there.
For me, it was always soccer. No other sports. My dad always loved futbol and he’s the one who got us playing, me and my brother Diego, who’s one year older than I am. There was a league right next to El Monte called, La Puente League. My dad took us there to be on our first team, which was called Club VH. It was a team of friends and families. Everyone was very united. We played at Sparks Elementary and Sierra Vista Middle School, and every time we won we’d go to this hamburger place right across the street. Those burgers were good! Tasting them meant we had won.
One of my first coaches was a man named Joey Cascio. He later got a job coaching a club in Pomona, and then he got invited to be one of the first academy coaches for a new MLS club that was starting up in L.A. He invited a bunch of players he had coached, and everyone he coached in Pomona, to those academy tryouts. It was a big group of 40 or 50 kids trying out for the first LAFC academy team. I was one of them. Week by week, there were fewer and fewer kids, and then I learned that I made it. That was a day that my family and I will never forget.
The academy has changed so much since then. In the early days, we would practice one day at ELAC (East LA College) and the next day at Cal State LA, and then this other field that was on a rooftop somewhere. Everything at LAFC was being built from scratch—just like that stadium next to the Science Center. We didn’t know where we were practicing from one day to the next but I was so grateful for all of it.
Today the academy develops a lot more players, across more age groups. The facilities are growing. It’s all part of the process of helping academy players get to the first team. That’s the main goal.
I’ve had ups and downs with the academy. For the first two years, I didn’t get a lot of playing time. I was discouraged, I’m not gonna lie. At the end of my second year, I told myself, ‘If I’m going to make it as a professional soccer player I need to stay with this Club and give it my all – just keep going and keep fighting.’
I was on the verge of getting cut until I changed my mindset. The following year I was a starter, and not long after that, I was on an airplane for the first time in my life – headed to a cup competition in Dallas. I’ll never forget that trip. I was so glad I’d chosen to fight for my dream.
My daily experience at that time was rare in the world of football. My family and I would wake up, eat breakfast, then we’d all go to Cal State LA for my academy games. When the first team had a home match, we’d go home to El Monte, shower, then go right to the stadium and wait for them to open the gates. I didn’t mind waiting because there were always tacos around – and those hot dogs they had! The ones with the peppers and onions at the little carts right outside the gates? Are you kidding me? Delicious!
When they opened the gates my dad and brother would go with the 3252 and my mom and my little brother would go sit with the rest of the fans. Those are some of my favorite memories – my dad and Diego and me in the North End, chanting, singing, yelling. My favorite chant was “Jump for LA Football Club” -- the one where they all bounce side to side. It’s still my favorite. Only now I feel it from a different perspective. From the field.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that I am playing first-team matches alongside Carlos Vela and Ilie Sánchez. But those guys tell me all the time that I belong here. That I have earned my place. What a gift it is to play with a legend like Giorgio Chiellini. I just like saying his name. Giorgio Chiellini. He makes jokes with me sometimes like, ‘I’m old enough to be your father’—and it’s true! The more experienced players—Giorgio, Carlos, Ilie, John McCarthy—have been so generous to me while also challenging me to improve and contribute to the team. Because that’s what they do every day. They try to improve and contribute to the team. I couldn’t ask for better mentors.
My family moved to Rialto about a year ago. It’s pretty far from El Monte, but I still go back. I have a godmother in El Monte. She runs a daycare there. She used to take care of us after school while my parents worked. Every Friday we have a reunion at her house. All the kids gather and the whole family has lunch or dinner—sometimes both. I usually go to Mountain View Park, next to Parkview Elementary School, and kick the ball around with my little brother. El Monte will always be home for me.
When I take the field at BMO Stadium and I look up and see my family, I get emotional. My parents have struggled a lot since their youth, growing up in Mexico. They gave everything to us. They fought for me and my brothers every day. That motivates me. That’s the emotional part. I play soccer for myself but mainly I do it for my family. I play to make them proud and put a smile on their faces. That’s what they deserve.
Growing up, my dad always told me and my brother to have goals, something to reach for and achieve. That advice has helped me a lot. When I was 10 my dad told me, ‘At 13-14 years old you’re going to be in an academy.’ And when I got there – when I was standing outside the science museum looking at our stadium, I was like, ‘Damn he was right.’