By Joe Curley
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You’ve seen the sight if you’ve been around the Southern California soccer “movement,” as Matt McDonagh refers to it, long enough. The 1980 white Ford van inevitably arrives at yet another Southern California soccer field, its interior thick with history, artful psychology, and belief. The 63-year-old retired teamster at the wheel is as confident in that legendary vehicle, its odometer climbing towards 400,000 miles with almost fewer signs of wear and tear as its nimble-minded owner, as he is that his boys will run roughshod over the competition awaiting them on the pitch. The teenage boys inside, from immigrant Latino families of Pomona, Ontario, Fontana and Compton, are infused with soccer psychology, sociopolitical debate and, when the occasion calls for it, war imagery from a place and time apart, yet so familiar.
But it is the irony, layered as an onion, that is most apparent when McDonagh, on his third attempt, finally wrestles the sliding door open to reveal his team, who must be the most unexpected group of champions to don Jock Stein’s green and white hoops.
Culled almost exclusively from the neighborhood Mexican leagues of the Inland Empire and inner-city Los Angeles, the reigning Under-14 U.S. Youth Soccer national champion of Upland’s Celtic F.C. literally provides a dark contrast to both the majority of its Coast League opposition and the pale-skinned, white-bearded, blue-eyed Irish immigrant who has constructed what his peers view as a historic team.
He guides his van down the freeways to Compton weekly to retrieve his four inner-city Los Angeles-based players — Moises Balderas, Mario Gutierrez, Omar Ramirez and Omar Tapia for training sessions in Ontario. The quartet has no other means to make training.
“These are the type of kids that usually aren’t able to experience youth club soccer,” said Ziad Khoury, director of Slammers FC. “Matt gives them this opportunity to understand what Coast Soccer League is all about. They are exposed to colleges and national teams, so they have a chance to achieve the next level. What Matt has done, with the Celtic, and specifically his team shows that he’s just an amazing human being. He’s a great ambassador of the game.”
“The team is absolutely awesome,” said Colin Chesters, the San Diego Surf’s director of coaching. “It could be the best U-14 team in the history of Southern California.”
The deeper irony of the situation is only appreciated by McDonagh upon return to his native county Sligo, Ireland; also the home of poet William Butler Yates and Andrew Kerins, the Marist Christian Brother who founded Glasgow Celtic F.C. in 1888.
Born the day after Pearl Harbor, McDonagh grew up playing football of the Gaelic, not English, variety. He was the oldest of six children to a family that farmed anything, everything and just “enough to feed a family.” He says he was sick and tired of the cold, wet winter of 1960 when he left Ireland for America on the Queen Mary.
How much he has changed in the interim is apparent when he visits home.
“When I go back, I realize how American I have become,” said McDonagh. “I miss the diversity, the ethnicity, the weather, the atmosphere of Southern California, which is, to me, paradise.”
And what would his 18-year-old self say if he knew he would eventually, like Kerins to the Scots, use the English game to bring together the Irish and Mexican cultures of Southern California?
“He would say, ‘Perish the thought,’ ” answered McDonagh, laughing. “But life is good.”
It is this same positive outlook that links his own childhood to those of his players.
“The Hispanic kids on my team and my own upbringing as a young man in Ireland are pretty much on a parallel path,” said McDonagh. “We’re all used to the hard life.
“(My childhood) was really hard, in the sense that we were by no means well off, although we never thought of ourselves as being poor. To this day in California, the class breakdown is very distinct and clear.”
He is the Irish harp, using his time with his players to strum on class divisions, to inform them of what will happen if they don’t get an education.
“If they don’t get an education, they’ll join gangs and end up with tattoos on the side of their necks,” said McDonagh, vividly. “If they go to school and get an education, life will be kind to them.
“I harp on them constantly about the consequences of their actions.”
Part of what makes McDonagh a success is his ability to see past the superficial differences of his players, into their potential as human beings.
“They are just as intelligent as that usually white teacher sitting in front of them,” said McDonagh. “I tell them, ‘If you would put half as much effort into your homework as you do into our soccer team, you would all have PhD’s.’ That’s a fact.”
The potential effect of time well spent with McDonagh can he found in Ab Alvarez, who played on one of the first Celtic teams in the early 1980s. “I appreciated him then,” said Alvarez, “but I can appreciate him so much more now.” The son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez is now the dean of students and soccer coach at a Christian high school in Sacramento.
“Matt McDonagh would do anything for any of his players at any time,” said Alvarez. “If you called him at 3 a.m., he would be there for you. He’s a very selfless person. A lot of what he did and does is why I coach today.”
Wearing the Celtic captain’s arm-band is an honor Alvarez still cherishes, decades later. He considers his work with his club, RC Arsenal, as time spent paying back McDonagh and his former coaches.
“I try to do what he did,” said Alvarez. “Give yourself for the love of the game and for the love of kids.”
He still remembers a tournament semifinal lost to a Culver Eagles team that included several future professionals, including U.S. international Marcelo Balboa. Two late penalty kicks turned a one-goal win into a one-goal loss. “We kind of felt like we got a raw deal on it,” said Alvarez. “I remember after the game, the most important thing was sportsmanship. Even though we were upset, Matt held it together, ‘We’re going to be sportsmen about this, lads.’
“The life lesson was always more important than the game, even though we worked so hard for a win that day.”
McDonagh is seen by his peers as one of Southern California’s ultimate gentlemen, which was why so many people were pleased to see Celtic return from Orlando this summer with a national title.
“He’s one of the nicest people in this business,” said Khoury. “There was not one person in Southern California that didn’t want to see him do it. He deserved it for all the years he coached. And, for that special group to give it to him, was the perfect ending to a great season.”
The immigrant fathers who gather to watch their sons play in the barrios of Pomona have a term for McDonagh. It translates to “werewolf who comes out of the sky to pick up victims,” said McDonagh, who usually makes his scouting trips with his little, white maltese dog. “I’ve been called it so many times. Usually I’m the only white guy there.”
But McDonagh can connect with a family because he, too, is an immigrant — a fiercely patriotic one who preaches integration and Americanization as fervently as his disdain for Oliver Cromwell and the centuries-old British oppression of his homeland. “I explain to them that, if they’re here to stay, they’re obligated to Americanize,” said McDonagh. “I say, ‘I’m doing you a favor that you can’t imagine.’ (The promise) has yet to fail.”
“I know I can trust Matt so much,” confirmed Celtic goalkeeper George Amezcua, who earned the Golden Gloves award at nationals. “Everyone knows he’s just a really nice man. I respect him very much.”
The respect flows both ways. McDonagh recently had a debate typical of his interaction with his players with forward Michael Mora. The subject was skin color. “If you’re worried about the color of skin and the image of life itself, then you’re a lost soul,” McDonagh told his player. “Even though your skin is brown and eyes are brown, and my skin is white and my eyes are blue, none of it means anything if we are not kind to others, if we don’t behave ourselves in a manner that is acceptable in society and if we don’t love ourselves for who we are.”
Mora took a second to digest the information and replied, “Your skin might be white,” answered Mora, “but you’re as brown as the rest of us inside.”
McDonagh took it as an ultimate complimen