How the Santa Clarita Blue Heat became a hotbed for rising women's soccer stars

How the Santa Clarita Blue Heat became a hotbed for rising women’s soccer stars

Carlos Marroquín manages the Santa Clarita Blue Heat, the United Women’s Soccer W League team that has played an important role in the development of soccer stars like Alyssa Thompson and Deyna Castellanos. (Carlos Marroquin)

As Alyssa Thompson smiled and grimaced during a series of interviews after Thursday’s NWSL draft, a stocky man with a graying beard and black hair that grizzled around his temples stood in the shadows and smiled.

As the first high school player selected with the first pick in the draft and the youngest player to join the national team in more than six years, the 18-year-old Thompson is US Soccer’s newest celebrity, the latest in a list starting with Mia Hamm. and includes 70 women who made their international debut as teenagers.

The man watching from the shadows played an important role in leading her there.

Carlos Marroquín, 55, a former Guatemalan youth international whose career ended with injury before it really began, runs the most interesting and influential women’s soccer club you’ve probably never heard of. Last season, the Santa Clarita Blue Heat roster featured a future NCAA champion, Armenian and Canadian national team players, a future Rose Parade queen in Bella Ballard, as well as Thompson and her sister Gisele, starter at the U-17 World Cup last fall. .

Past teams included Deyna Castellanos of Venezuela, who finished third in voting for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year; captains of national teams from Costa Rica and Portugal; four times Finnish player of the year; a Chilean World Cup player who is also a model; and more than half a dozen college All-Americans.

“It’s great to know, as a college coach, that we have these [people] like Carlos, who continue to look out for the best interests of our players and really looking out for their health, for their development,” said UCLA coach Margueritte Aozasa, whose program has sent several players to Marroquín.

The Blue Heat, who play in the second-tier United Women’s Soccer league, fill a vital niche in the sports landscape, Aozasa said. College and high school coaches are prohibited from working with their players for much of the summer, so teams like Marroquin’s have stepped up to provide a competitive environment for players to continue their development.

“Carlos does a very good job. He understands the role those teams play in assisting and assisting college programs by providing players with those minutes and games. He is very accommodating,” said Aozasa, who led UCLA to its second national championship last fall.

“He does a good job of attracting top-tier talent. So even if the teams they play against aren’t that high level, the players they play with tend to be. We definitely lean on teams like that over the summer because it fills a void that we really have no control over.”

That was not a role Marroquín envisioned for himself when a visitor to his small Newhall football shop asked if he would be willing to help manage a fledgling team called the Rooks. At the time, Marroquín had little interest in women’s soccer, but he could know disaster when he saw one.

“What I saw was not support,” Marroquín said. “I said we have to do something for these girls.”

A year later, in 2010, Marroquín was approached with another offer. This time she was asked to take charge of the Ventura Fusion, a women’s team that played in the second division of the USL W-League. Her reaction was more or less the same: if she wanted the sport to grow, she had to do something to help. So she accepted the offer, she moved the team to Santa Clarita, renamed it the Blue Heat, and a year later won its first conference title. Marroquín was captivated.

Carlos Marroquín at Planet Soccer, his store in Newhall.

Carlos Marroquín at Planet Soccer, his store in Newhall. Marroquín has owned the store for the past 19 years. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“I started to fall in love with women’s soccer,” she said. “I have been the sole owner since day 1. I have received no help from anyone. I am basically myself.

“When you have passion for something, you keep going. In this division, at this level, nobody is going to make money. I don’t have any profit. But at least I help the girls to be professionals.”

Girls like Olivia Moultrie, who used to visit the store with her father when she was in elementary school and ask him for advice. She now plays for the Portland Thorns alongside Natalia Kuikka, who helped the Blue Heat reach the UWS championship in 2017. Ashley Sanchez moved from the Blue Heat to the Washington Spirit of the NWSL. Ana Borges went from the Blue Heat to the Spanish giant Atlético de Madrid, and then to Chelsea.

Best of all, though, might be Thompson, who was a skinny, unpolished 14-year-old when she met Marroquín. She now has a guaranteed three-year contract with Angel City. She was one of seven former Blue Heat players among the 48 women drafted Thursday, with her former teammate Penelope Hocking also in the first round when the Chicago Red Stars selected her with the seventh overall pick.

No college program saw more than three of its players drafted Thursday.

Since beginning play in the UWS in 2016, the league’s inaugural season, the Blue Heat have won two titles, most recently in 2021. As much as Marroquin loves to win, that’s not why he exists. the team. And as much as he would like to own an NWSL team, his passion lies with the players at the beginning of their rise to stardom, not the ones already there.

“I had to be realistic,” he said. “I will never own any professional team. It is impossible to buy a team myself, and being part of another team will be impossible. They want people with a lot of money, right?

So Marroquín helps out at the grassroots level, filling his roster with local high school and college players or European-based professionals like Portugal’s Edite Fernandes and Bulgaria’s Evi Popadinova, who were looking for a place to play.

Now, Marroquín has begun using his connections in another way, becoming a US and Latin American scout for A&V Sports Group, a global agency that represents Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, as well as more than 30 players, including Thompson, from 13 countries. .

“I prefer to be a headhunter because I don’t represent anyone. I send players to good teams,” he said. “I love what I do, I do what I love.”

It all started with the Blue Heat, who play a 10-game regular season schedule in late spring or early summer. The team used venues throughout the Santa Clarita Valley before settling in College of the Canyons, where it has begun to draw large crowds, for the UWS.

“Before we had 50 people in the stadium. Now we have over 500 per game,” she said. “You have 500 people in Santa Clarita at a game, it’s crazy.”

That following has grown because the team has. When your roster includes future national team players like Sanchez and Thompson on an annual basis, it helps with the marketing of the team.

“The team is beginning to have more prestige. People start to have more interest,” said Marroquín. “So the D1 coaches are starting to trust me. When you start something, it’s hard to trust someone.

“We are the future professionals. You want to see someone next year playing professionally, this will be a good opportunity. First they play for us, and then they play professionally.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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