Santa Rosa-based soccer program teaches more than sports

With a longtime passion for soccer, Jose Espinoza finds no greater pleasure than sharing the sport with Sonoma County kids and their families.

As director of coaching for Tahuichi Fútbol Club, a Santa Rosa-based youth soccer development program, Espinoza, 42, promotes the sport that unites Latino families and celebrates cultural traditions.

He likens soccer to the all-American pastime of baseball.

“Soccer is the all-Hispanic game. It’s the one thing that gets you out on the weekend,” he said. “As a culture, it makes us who we are.”

Raised in Bolivia, Espinoza attended a top soccer academy as a child (one that produced several World Cup players) and has played soccer most of his life. His father was a professional soccer player.

“It’s something that’s been in my heart all these years,” said Espinoza, a longtime coach who last year directed four Tahuichi teams. “It’s a universal game. Anybody can play it; anybody can learn it.”

It’s not for everyone, he stresses, but those who love soccer share a common intensity.

“It’s with passion. Sometimes it gets out of hand, the screaming, the loudness, the way they like it,” he said. “Even at youth levels, it can get out of hand.”

Espinoza understands that passion, the culture and the sense of community often found within soccer leagues.

“Especially at tournaments, families gather together,” he said. “You bring the grill. I’m bringing the carne, you bring frijoles. It’s community and gathering together.”

With Latinos making up about 80 percent of the Tahuichi teams, extended families are a big part of the equation. Particularly in younger age divisions, it’s common to see siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents and family friends supporting children and rooting enthusiastically from the sidelines.

Tahuichi - an Incan word for a high-flying bird, pronounced “Ta-we-chi” - is an open club for Sonoma County teens, adolescents and children, the youngest in under-4 developmental academies where fundamental skills are emphasized.

Its fees are lower than private club, so players of all socio-economic backgrounds can participate. Many of the 279 players currently on the roster receive some level of financial assistance.

With fall and spring seasons, the league offers social opportunities for players and families to gather at games, tournaments and fundraisers. The sport builds a sense of community uniting all ages.

A Santa Rosa resident with three children on Tahuichi teams, Espinoza believes a sense of community is paramount to success, whether in school or on the soccer field. His wife, Guadalupe, a former goalie, also embraces the philosophy.

Espinoza established the league in 2009 with Miguel Monroy, his friend and partner in a building maintenance and janitorial services company. From the start, the emphasis has been on athleticism, academics and family.

Playing competitively under the umbrella of NorCal Premier Soccer, the club is dedicated to building better players, fostering a sense of community and encouraging athletes to recognize the value of education.

That translates to “School First, Soccer Second.” It’s the club motto, something both encouraged and celebrated.

“Since day one, that was always the main thing for our daughters and our sons,” Espinoza said. “If we were able to continue (the league), that was the goal for our club.”

Players, parents and the all-volunteer coaches and board members have a collective role in shaping club goals, including checking players’ grades every three months.

“We ask for report cards and then we keep track. They have to bring it. I’m always pushing them,” Espinoza said. “We’re pushing for them to grow as players as well as students.”

Even his own children - Dhamar, 14, Jose Jr., 11, and Sam, 8 - are not exempt from the academic scrutiny.

Espinoza said he is proud of players’ accomplishments, both on the field and off, and of the role families and volunteers have played in that success.

Some of Tahuichi’s ?18 teams have been accepted for first division open league and the national premier league. Several players have been starters for their high school soccer teams.

“We are at the same level and can say some of our teams are even better than top (private club) teams,” Espinoza said.

He particularly enjoys when all ages come together for end-of-season celebrations that include all teams, families and friends.

The dinner-dances, open to the public as a club fundraiser, honor top teams and players, as well as top students, who receive “Tahuichi money” of $100 or $150 certificates that can be used for soccer expenses. The certificates are one way the Tahuichi board helps to reduce costs for soccer families.

Additionally, parents receiving financial assistance can return the favor by lending a hand - fertilizing the lawn at Elsie Allen High School where most practices are held, preparing fields on game days or helping with fundraisers or tournaments.

Older players can earn discounts by serving as referees.

Espinoza’s greatest source of pride is the fact that players and families return year after year.

“It’s that the kids love Tahuichi and understand what Tahuichi is all about,” he said. “Kids want to stay here and be a part of it.”

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