We call ourselves ‘Villarreal USA’, and that is an homage to fans of the club living here in the states. What some people may not know, however, is that Villarreal as a club has invested deeply in American soccer, as well as football around the globe. In this series of articles we will cover the different academy setups with official Villarreal affiliation all over the globe.
The American Heartland may not be the first place you think about when you hear the name ‘Villarreal’, but in May 2018, the club reached out to the Lincoln Soccer Association in Lincoln, Nebraska about an official academy partnership. Now, for those not familiar with the way Villarreal CF conducts its business, you might assume that such a partnership just involved some Villarreal crested shirts and the occasional email correspondence with the main, club, but that’s not so, as Nicki Baker, the online admin at VNA, explained: “We have weekly phone, facetime and emails. They are very much a part of our day to day operations. We also send athletes to Spain every year for a individual and team training. Every Summer multiple Villarreal Staff travel from Spain to Nebraska and are here for our team formations and camps.”
This is the sort of personal touch that embodies Villarreal and it is not common in world football. Having worked with several clubs myself, on the media side of things, I can tell you I have never seen a club of this magnitude so willing to interact personally to make the football world a little bit better.
Villarreal Nebraska competes in approximately 750 games a year ranging from U3s to U19s. Structuring themselves this way allows for a high level of soccer education that can span an entire childhood, and that level of involvement has impacts that go beyond sport. A young player has the chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves in an organization that is part of the fabric of and contributes to the local community.
In addition to the football, VNA helps the community doing projects like blanket collection, serving in local kitchens, and free community soccer clinics. They also work with local Title 1 schools in Lincoln to try to break down the pay to play cycle in American soccer. We cannot overstate how huge this last one is, as access to high quality soccer education in our country is too often cordoned off to those able to pay for expensive travel teams. Additionally, they contribute to local food drives, work with flood relief organizations, due after school programs, and volunteer at the local assisted living facility. They’ve also done clinics for refugees and foster families.
This kind of community involvement is what our sport is all about. Above and beyond the great soccer that gets played in Lincoln, the Villarreal name is being tied to a great force for good in the community and that to me makes the entire project worthwhile.
The director for coaching at VNA is Jorge Sambataro. Having been with the program since 2017, Sambataro sets the culture and vision for the entire sporting side of the academy. In this description of his coaching philosophy, he states:
“Where one goes, we all go” ... Learn to Love and Respect one another, encourage each other, not criticize. We all win together, celebrate together, laugh and cry, and grow, sweat, work. Learn and lose together, as a team. We only look for the best in each other, and not on how it shouldn’t be done, etc.
This mentality describes not only how VNA approaches sport but also how they see their role in their community.
On the pitch, VNA has seven athletes who have signed with colleges for next season. For our international readers, collegiate play is the goal of most serious athletes in American youth sport. It provides student-athletes with a quality education regardless of whether they ever end up being pro athletes. Often, in American sports, collegiate athletics provide opportunities to students they would not have had otherwise. It’s not a perfect system by any stretch, but it gives young people the chance to gain more than just sporting experience through their time participating in athletics.
At the close of my questions, I asked Nicki Baker if there as anything else she wanted us to know about Villarreal Nebraska, here was her response:
“We have designed and started a school soccer club program. Access for all is our goal. The program will break cultural, economic and racial barriers, give purpose to students to: increase school attendance, improve grades, and improve behavior. Students will have access and opportunity to change their future. They will have a purpose and a pathway to any level of athletic level or educational level they want to achieve. Students are prevented from participating in quality programs due to finances, transportation, and commitment constraints. This program will eliminate constraints and barriers and give access to a professional organization that will open doors to health, wellness and education. Students are prevented from participating in quality programs due to finances, transportation, and commitment constraints. We will transport our trained staff to the school site one time each week throughout the school year in working with the school staff and CLC Directors and agencies.
Program Overview: VNA will bring quality programming and continual relationship building to 24-36 students each CLC club cycle. VNA began this winter for 25 students at Lakeview. VNA provides 2 trained coaches and any needed supplies. There is no cost to the school, students or the CLC lead agency. By year-end 2020 we hope to have impacted 625 students in Lincoln at no-cost.”
I think this program encapsulates my biggest takeaway from my time learning about VNA. When people think of American soccer, they think of big corporate franchises in a closed, single entity tier, but this is a club in every sense of the word. They are focused on the community, they enrich the lives of young people all over their city, they serve others, and they use the sport of soccer as the uniting impetus that brings it all together. I can clearly see why Villarreal CF wanted to partner with this organization, they perfectly capture what the name and badge stand for.
Thank you to Nicki Baker at Villarreal Nebraska for allowing us to interview her for this article. Good luck to all the VNA teams this year! You can find them on the web at https://www.villarrealnebraska.com/ on Twitter @villarreal_NE and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/villarrealnebraska/