‘They’re impacting the future of these kids’: Firing of longtime youth soccer coach leaves season in jeopardy

Members of the Santa Cruz City Youth Soccer Club Sharks 07 team, holding signs in support of their coach, German Plaza.
Members of the Santa Cruz City Youth Soccer Club Sharks 07 team, holding signs in support of coach German Plaza prior to meeting with the organization’s board of directors.
(Via Irena Polić)

The Santa Cruz City Youth Soccer Club Sharks 07 team’s season is now shrouded in uncertainty. It’s been a tumultuous few weeks since the firing of its longtime coach, German Plaza. Though the club’s board of directors has announced an interim coach, many of the players have maintained that they do not want to attend the June regional tournament in Idaho without Plaza, leaving the remainder of the season in flux.

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On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-May, the Santa Cruz City Youth Soccer Club (SCCYSC) Sharks 07 team took the field for its final games of the regular season at Depot Park, down the street from the municipal wharf. Within the first few minutes of the game, the Sharks conceded a goal — unusual for the accomplished squad, which won the Cal North State Cup in April to qualify for US Youth Soccer’s Far West Regional Championships in Idaho next month.

But the team isn’t playing under normal circumstances. The SCCYSC board of directors fired the team’s longtime coach, German Plaza, on May 10. Since then, the team has been in disarray, its 17 15- and 16-year-old players — many of whom have played under Plaza for nearly a decade — deeply frustrated, and their parents deeply disappointed.

“I think what people are really upset about is the fact they chose to do this six weeks before the regionals,” Seema Rizvi, whose son Elan is on the team, told Lookout. Like other parents, she said players and parents believe that the board did not balance its own actions and those of the student players very well.

Lookout talked with several of the parents, who spoke both of the lack of transparency in the firing and of the timing of it, with the team scheduled to head to the Boise regional tournament in late June.

Many of the players have echoed Rizvi’s sentiment. Even after SCCYSC announced last week that Harbor High School boys soccer coach Michael Vahradian would serve as the Sharks’ interim coach, a significant number of the players have indicated that they don’t want to make the trip to the Far West Regionals, scheduled for June 23-29.

The SCCYSC Sharks 07 team.
(Via Jon Covello)

Why was Plaza, who has served as the team’s coach for nearly a decade, since they were 7 or 8 years old, fired?

Lookout asked the SCCYSC board for comment about the firing and its impact. SCCYSC is a volunteer-led, not-for-profit organization that offers competitive and recreational youth soccer leagues and teams for both boys and girls in the city of Santa Cruz and the surrounding area.

The board responded by email, saying that Plaza “violated NorCal league rules and club bylaws that prompted us to end his association with this club before the end of the season.”

Which rules were violated?

German Plaza, youth soccer coach
German Plaza.

Dismissed in mid-May, German Plaza told Lookout that he and his son, Rodrigo, who has been an assistant coach in the league, said the dismissal centers on their plans to work together in Rodrigo’s own soccer club, Eclipse Soccer Academy. “It was definitely the root of their concern,” said Rodrigo Plaza.

German Plaza, who also serves as an instructor for the U.S. Soccer Federation, said that initially, the board told him he would not be allowed to coach in the upcoming fall season. “That was the first call I got, and I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s your prerogative,’” he said.

Shortly after, he said, he was ousted before the end of this season. He said he did not know what changed the timing.

“To have this opportunity taken away is very hard for them,” said Jaye Padgett, whose son, Evan, is on the Sharks 07 team. “For us, the real concern is that this has been handled in a really unprofessional way, and has been damaging to the feelings of the team.” The fact that this is recruitment season — a time when colleges are scouting for prospective players — adds another layer of frustration.

The families say they understand that Plaza’s firing is a matter between him and the board of directors, but that the handling and timing of it is at issue.

On May 18, the SCCYSC board held a virtual meeting with the players and their families, but that meeting left the latter group unsatisfied.

“It was clear they did not come to talk with us, or to the kids,” said Irena Polić, Padgett’s wife. “They came to repeat what they emailed us, not engage in a conversation, but talk at us.”

By email, the SCCYSC board responded, saying that the meeting was “to allow parents the space to express their feelings about German’s dismissal.” In reply to the families’ statements that they did not intend to play further if Plaza were not going to coach, the board said, “We informed them that if they did want to continue playing, there would be experienced coaches available.”

“I mean, I’ve seen instances where a coach could be under investigation for something illegal, and they still let them finish off the season and tell them they won’t be back the next year,” said Lara Westberg, mother of a newer Sharks 07 player, Luca Berrios, as she occasionally glanced over to the game in progress at Depot Park.

“They’re impacting the future of these kids,” added Ricardo Berrios, Luca’s father. “That’s the problem here.”

The board said it understands that the players and families might be disappointed, but that its focus “has been, and will always be, the players.” The board also said it hired Vahradian because he knows and has coached many of the players in the past. Some of the families spoke highly of him as well.

SCCYSC said it has paid the fee required to hold the team’s space in the West regional tournament, but as of now, that might not be enough for the tight-knit group that has developed together for years.

“The damage to the soccer development and preparation for the tournament is already done,” German Plaza said. “The emotional damage is done.”


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