April 25 2012 11:00 AM

San Diego soccer team hopes to take their game overseas

The UD1's Eric "Rhino" Diaz goes after the ball.
Photo by Kelly Davis
One side of Rosa Parks Field in City Heights is a patchwork of dust and dry grass. At halftime, Janice Jordan passes around a bag of Halls to her team, the Undisputed Ones— UD1s for short—to soothe dry throats.

Fearing injuries from the hard ground, Jordan had suggested that the UD1s forfeit; they said no. "So, I told them to buy Dr. Scholl's," she says.

A week later, on Rosa Parks' south field, it's a different story. The field is bigger— good for the UD1s, who can run fast and long—but it's blanketed with uncut grass that slows the ball and trips up the feet.

Jose Ponce watches from the sidelines.

"We don't always play on the greatest fields," he says. "You gotta adjust to the conditions. You don't play on the field you want; you play on the field you're given."

The UD1s are one of 250 teams in San Diego's California Soccer League. Around since 1988, and founded by former Park and Rec employee Ricky Franchi, CSL started as a way to keep inner-city kids out of trouble. But then those kids' parents wanted to play and the league expanded. These days, adult teams trend young—for the UD1s, for instance, the average age is 23.

The UD1s, who are currently in first place in their division, take the game seriously. During halftime, while other teams disperse to the sidelines to rest or chat, the UD1s huddle together while co-captains Larry Valdez and Pedro Adan analyze the game. Even if they're winning, they'll break by saying "zero-zero," meaning play the second half as if it were anyone's game.

Jordan is trainer at the North Park gym Undisputed—the team's sponsor. She puts her players, 18 guys and one girl, through grueling workouts—but her influence on them goes beyond that. She's given them all nicknames. Ponce is "Cheese," Adan is "Philosopher," Valdez is "Two-Step." There's "Badger," "ChaCha," "El Show."

"They call her ‘Mama J,'" says Valdez's mom, Gisela.

Jordan spent much of her life a strident political activist, spearheading protests and running for office as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. Now 47, she's mellowed—a bit. The UD1s' warm-up jerseys feature Zapatistas, and Jordan still sports multiple earrings and a partially shaved head. A few years ago, she earned a degree in counseling psychology and is now working on one in nutrition. She'll regularly send the team emails peppered with advice about mental and physical well-being. "Stop eating out!" she implored in one email. "Cook food at home—home cooking is sexy!"

In the last year, Ponce's dropped 75 pounds.

"We started at that gym kind of caked out," he admits.

Right now, Jordan's got the team focused on a goal bigger than being league champs. If they can raise the money, this summer, shortly before the London Olympics, they'll travel to Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool and Edinburgh­ to play a series of amateur "friendly" games.

"I know that training for anything and working at anything as intense as being an athlete, you have to have a goal," Jordan says.

For Alex Gonzalez, whom Jordan nicknamed "Badger," it'll be his first time out of the country. He grew up in the foster-care system after his parents were sent to prison when he was 8 months old. He just turned 18 and aged out of the system, meaning he's now living on his own and struggling to get by. For Gonzalez the UD1s are like a family and playing soccer is his outlet.

"I've always had anger issues, and sports helps me calm down," he says. "Soccer's a way to free my mind."

That game on the overgrown field didn't go as well as the UD1s had hoped. They went in undefeated, but lost 3 to 1. But it's the team's first season together and though several players attended the same middle school, played soccer there and have remained friends, most are just getting to know one another. Players communicate plenty during a match, but with any good sports team, there's an unspoken communication that takes place.

"We've got to learn our team; we've got to be comfortable with each other," Valdez tells his teammates after the match. (Though, left unsaid is the fact that the other team was handed at least six yellow penalty cards to the UD1s' one.)

"It's a process," Adan says. "You learn from losing. Good teams don't lose twice."

Even with the loss, they're still in first place. But Jordan knew it was hard to take. She sent the team an email early the next morning:

"My gosh there are times I want to run on the field so you know I have your back. I often feel powerless standing on the sideline, even in our winning moments. But last night was a test of our spirit and as a team we did not falter or break."

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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