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From The Pitch - Full Circle

By ANTHONY VELARDE, Central Valley Fuego FC, 01/10/22, 4:30PM EST


Author - Anthony Velarde
Anthony Velarde
Central Valley Fuego FC
January 10, 2022

It’s funny how things can come full circle, isn’t it? 

Years ago, I was on the sidelines of the Central Valley’s USL League Two team matches, a spare ball in hand, running up and down the sidelines along with the action of the match. I was so proud to be a ball boy, looking out at the field and the players and seeing what was possible. That was really where it all started.  

I’ve played on what seems like every team and every soccer field in the Valley. I've worked day in and day out, growing as a player and as a person. I know I put in the time, energy and focus necessary to be able to say I’m the first signing for Central Valley Fuego FC’s inaugural season in USL League One. Ten years ago, if you’d told the kid from Reedley, California, who was the ball boy at those Fresno Fuego matches, that he would have accomplished all this, I’m not sure he would’ve believed you. 

I followed my older brother to Fresno Pacific University and put up a strong showing my junior and senior year. It was enough to get me noticed and I secured an invite to a trial with USL Championship side Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.  

A few days after the trial, I had signed a professional contract with the Riverhounds. I was a professional soccer player. And man, did I have a lot to learn. 

Photo courtesy Malory Neil / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

I was away from home, away from my family’s comfort – and cooking. I’m not going to lie, it took a few months to really adjust into my new life, all the way across the country. I really had to grow up as a person and that was probably one of my biggest hurdles. 

Then there was the learning on the field. Playing under Hounds Coach Bob Lilley taught me so much. It was truly a blessing to play under him. If you don’t know: Coach Lilley is a winner. There’s no questioning that. He held us all to the same, highest standard no matter if it was training, a friendly, or a high-stakes match against the number one team in the Championship at the time. If you didn’t bring 100 percent at all times, you were not going to make it on his squad. 

If I’m being honest, being held to that standard was an adjustment for me. I wasn’t used to the expectation of being at my best at every moment of every training session or match. It taught me to be a player my teammates could rely on, always, because that’s the standard we held each other to. 

Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

After a few months in Pittsburgh, I really hit my stride. I bonded with my teammates and found mentorship along with the friendship from guys like Jordan Dover and our captain Kenardo Forbes. I ended up playing more than 70 games with the Riverhounds and I truly grew as a player and a person. I even got to wear the captain’s armband a few times and step out from the role of mentee to mentor. Now, thanks to what guys like Jordan and Kenardo taught me, I feel a true calling to be that for some of my new teammates too. 

Although my chapter at Pittsburgh has closed, I’m ready to bring everything I learned from tactics, to mentality, to leadership, to Central Valley Fuego FC. I’m ready to hold myself to that professional standard for every pass, every touch, every moment. And I’m ready to do it not only for myself, but to set an example for the rest of the team. To be a leader.  

During the summers in college, I played on the USL League Two club in Fresno. It was important for me to continue getting minutes and competition in, but it was special because when I was a kid, I looked up to the guys playing for that team. I wanted to be them, I worked hard, and I achieved that goal. 

There’s something really special about playing in The Valley. Whether it’s a Sunday League game, or pre-professional, or Central Valley Fuego’s Home Opener on May 7 – which will be incredible in its own right – it’s always special because of this community. The culture here is just different. There's love. Respect. If you’re from the Central Valley, you want people to know. We’re proud and I know we’re going to be proud of this club, too. 

I like to think I was helpful in putting the Central Valley on the soccer map. Hopefully, as a part of Fuego FC, I’ll continue furthering that. 

Returning to the fields in Central Valley to bring this next step in my career to fruition is a dream come true. I get to bring what I learned from Coach Lilley and my teammates in Pittsburgh back home and play in front of my friends, family and community. 

Ten years ago, I would never have thought this is where I’d be. Back with my family and now my two daughters in the place where I started down the path toward this dream as a ball boy looking up to those players. Now, I’ll get to spark that for the next generation of Central Valley players.  

Photo courtesy Chris Cowger / Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

I want to be an example for any kid who has dreams of playing professionally, to show that it’s possible. 

Any player in the Central Valley can make it. 

So, without further ado, let’s start this fire, Fuego. 

From The Pitch aims to provide a platform for individuals within the USL to share their thoughts on things that matter most to them – at the crossroads of life and the beautiful game. USL partner Bellevue University is committed to empowering motivated students to explore their passions, impact change in their communities and chase their dreams.

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