In Part 2 (Part 1 found here) of our latest Soccer Nation Sitdown, North County Battalion and Encinitas Express Head Coach Sergio Palafox takes our own Nate Abaurrea on a fascinating trip down memory lane.
Much of the mental journey takes place in East Los Angeles and revolves around Palafox’s relationship during his playing career with a true Mexican Soccer icon, a man by the name of Leonardo Cuellar. It all comes full circle, with Palafox now blazing his own coaching path, while always checking in with the values and ideals he was given by one of his greatest mentors. We also learn how Palafox originally got involved with the North County Battalion, how it all connects to Encinitas Express, and why Palafox is so passionate about the NCB on and off the field.
Nate Abaurrea: Coach, let’s go back to your childhood days with the beautiful game. When did soccer truly become a focal point of your life?
Sergio Palafox: It’s been a cornerstone of my life for as long as I can remember. However, there’s an interesting twist in how it all happened. My father, Ismael, was and always will be a baseball fan. He lives and breathes baseball. Naturally, he wanted his sons to be baseball players.
The story goes that when my brother (who is four years older than me) was a young kid, my dad bought him a glove, bat, and ball for his birthday. Within a day, my brother had thrown the bat in the bushes outside, thrown the glove on the floor of the house, and was continuously kicking the baseball into the glove like it was a little goal. Even my dad was able to admit that my brother was a soccer player at heart.
I was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and we moved to East Los Angeles when I was four. When I became old enough to play sports, around five or six years of age, I was the type of kid that wanted to please everybody. My dad got me into baseball, while my brother pushed me to play soccer with him all the time. I played both sports for a while, but I definitely gravitated toward following my brother around and becoming obsessed with soccer. I really looked up to my brother, like he was a superstar.
From the time I started playing, from rec-leagues to pick up games, I always played with my brother, with his friends and people of his age group. That established something in me. I was forced to become a physical player, as I was constantly battling kids four years older and much bigger than me. I was also able to learn so much from just watching my brother and how he went about things.
NA: Let’s talk a little more about your upbringing in East Los Angeles and how it led you to being a Men’s Soccer player at CSULA.
SP: When my brother and I were kids, soccer is what kept us out of trouble. The area where we lived was pretty rough, and having something like soccer was huge for us. My dad knew that, and that made him fully appreciate what we were doing (though he sometimes wished one of us could’ve been a baseball player).
We used to walk from our place to the fields at CSULA. We’d play on those fields for hours, my brother and I. It must have been when I was about eleven years old when a coach spotted us playing one day. The man came over to us and introduced himself as the Head Coach of the CSULA Soccer Team. The man’s name was Leonardo Cuellar.
Once we were able to comprehend who he was, my brother and I were pretty excited. Leo (as we called him) was the captain of the Mexican National Team at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. He played throughout the 70’s with Pumas UNAM, and even came to the U.S. to play with the old San Diego Sockers. He’s one of the most recognizable people in the history of Mexican Soccer, a folk hero of sorts.
That day we met, he told us that he also coached a youth club in the area called the Foothill Flyers, and he wanted both of us to play. We ended up playing for the club. It was an important moment for me as player, but it was also very tough, as for the first time my brother and I were separated into different age groups.
In 1997, I played for Leo again, this time as a Golden Eagle at CSULA. It was an incredible experience. I played two seasons under him as a college player, 97/9 and 98/99, what ended up being his final seasons heading the program. He went on to become the Head Coach of the Mexican Women’s National Team, a post he held for almost twenty years, helping to build the foundation of women’s soccer in Mexico.
Leo is a hero of mine, a great friend and mentor. I’ve been around a lot of coaches in my life, and I try to take positive things from each one, but there’s nobody I model myself after more than Leo. Whenever I was around him, I tried to soak in as much as I possibly could.
NA: What is it that you remember most about Leonardo Cuellar the manager?
SP: What will always stand out is the respect that Leo showed his players. The level of respect that he showed me and all of my teammates made a major impact on my life, and the way that I want to treat people. He taught me a lot of life lessons through the game of soccer, and showed me the power that this game will always have.
NA: We are both a bit young to remember Leonardo Cuellar the player. But when you talk to the older generation of Mexican fans, they speak of him with such prestige. Obviously, being a captain of any country at a World Cup is quite the notable achievement. But he has an almost larger than life feel. Much of it could stem from his unmistakable hair and beard. What did this all mean to you when you were younger?
SP: It’s amazing to think of it like that, because he was always so humble and down to earth when my brother and I were kids, and that continued on once we were older. Something that always makes me smile is a quote from my dad right around the time that we joined Leo’s club. We were not well off, and my father did everything he could to support our soccer. Often times my dad was unable to get us to practices and games, so Leo started picking us up from our house. No matter how big of a baseball fan my father was, he most definitely was well aware of Leonardo Cuellar. One day, as Leo was on his way over, my dad looked at me and said:
“If you would have told me that one day the captain of Mexico would be picking up my son and taking him to his soccer game, I would have told you that you were crazy.”
As for the hairdo, it’s funny you should mention. When I was first playing for Leo, I had a big afro on my head, much like the one he had when he was playing. We both had darker skin, looking so much alike that people often mistook me for his son. The funniest part was that his actual son was my teammate.
Leo is someone who I will always give credit to whenever given the chance. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without knowing him.
NA: This all ties back to perfectly to the present time, with you coaching with both Encinitas Express and North County Battalion. How did you get involved with the Battalion, and how did it connect to your involvement with the Express?
SP: It’s another fine example of networking. I originally met Jason Barbato (the founder of NC Battalion) through the Express, as both of our daughters were playing for the club. One day at an Express event, I overheard Jason talking about his vision for a new professional soccer team in San Diego. I was instantly intrigued, and told Jason that I’d love to be a part of his vision.
In conversation, we learned that we were both big Seattle Sounders fans. I actually did some behind the scenes work with the Sounders during their first few seasons in Major League Soccer, and I spoke with Jason at length about all the things the Sounders did to truly become part of their local community. I shared my thoughts on the importance of community involvement, and seeing what it meant to Jason made me want to join the Battalion. I am grateful for my coaching role, but I want to help the club grow in all areas.
NA: What excites you most about being a part of the Battalion?
SP: The passion, without a doubt. The passion from the players, the fans, the owners, and everyone involved with the team, really. What we accomplished in our first NPSL season was outstanding, and now we want more. We want to attract players who understand the bigger picture. I want to see players building their own careers as they do everything they can to help the team. I look at a player like Eric Lopez as a perfect example of this. Nothing would make me happier than to see Eric at a higher level of the game and be able to say, “the Battalion helped him get there”. Eric embodies what the Battalion is all about. He’s one of the hardest workers you’ll find. He’s technically skilled. And most of all, he has a sense of pride in wearing the shirt. That is priceless, as a main focus of this club is continuing to build a bond with the San Diego community.