Many of us around the world may be unfamiliar with Victor Yanez. He seems like an ambitious Jesuit priest-in-training if you meet him without any context about his past. Yet, what if I told you he was supposed to be the next breakout star in North America? Yanez indeed had a pretty fantastic career as a youth footballer in Mexico and the USA. Yanez played for both Mexico and American national youth teams and rubbed shoulders with many players who would go on to have successful careers in top leagues worldwide. Some of the players he has played alongside include Giovanni and Jonathan Dos Santos, Sheanon Williams, Brek Shea, Andy Rose, David Estrada, Freddy Adu, Brian Perk, and, interestingly, American football player Josh Lambo. Yet unlike his teammates, Yanez never became a pro. For the most part, I have been interviewing players who managed to become a professional player through their own struggles. Yet for every footballer that makes it, countless others do not. This is one such story.
Beginnings in Mexico and Journey to the IMG Academy
Yanez was born and raised in Mexico but moved to the United States when he was 11 years old. Growing up in Mexico, Yanez played football in the streets and realised he was a gifted footballer. A young Yanez would go to his backyard in Mexico and practice various challenges, such as doing touches against the cement wall without the ball touching the ground. He’d also imagine himself playing against teams. Back during a time where YouTube wasn’t around yet, his imagination and friends were his entertainment source. After school every day, he would set two rocks on the ground in front of his house to demarcate a goal post and play with his friends.
“Sometimes we used sticks of a broom and hammered it down for goalposts. When we used rocks, if the ball passed it and was too high, we’d get into an argument if that was a goal or not.”
Interestingly, Yanez struggled with systemic practice in the USA when he moved over. Playing street football since he was a kid, he had a knack for knowing what to do when he was on the pitch. However, he wasn’t an excellent practice player. Things like warming up and cardio exercises frustrated Yanez, who did not understand why these things were important. Later on, he did acknowledge that practice sessions helped his agility and natural fitness, but at the time, it was a real challenge.
Yanez played in one of the most competitive youth leagues in California and was scouted for the Olympic Development Programme (ODP), like the state team. Every state had an ODP and each state team would play other state teams in their region. There were four regional zones established. From each region, players would be selected for the regional teams and out of these four regions, the best players would be selected for the national Under-15 team. Yanez managed to climb through the tiers and in 2005, when he was 15 years old, he left home and was recruited to the U-15 USA National team. He would move over to Florida to take residence in the IMG Academy where he would stay and train for 2 years in preparation for the U-17 World Cup.
“Back then. There wasn’t really a U-15 national team. The idea of the U-15 team was to get you ready for the U-17 World Cup that would happen in 2 years. Even if you called yourself a U-15, the idea was always to go to the [U-17] World Cup. So, you’re in that pool. You’re getting ready for that.”
Switching Allegiances to Mexico
Unfortunately, after two years with the IMG academy, Yanez could not represent the United Stated U-17 team because his immigration paperwork was being processed. Instead, he took advantage of how players could switch back and forth and play for multiple youth national teams. He chose to play for the Mexico U-17 team instead due to the circumstances.
“I remember moving to Mexico to link up with the U-17 team. I remember how we were supposed to introduce each other and share what team we were playing for. Back then, I was playing for a team in California and we used to call ourselves Manchester United. I never played for Manchester United but this was the closest thing. And this guy next to me says he’s Jonathan dos Santos and I play for Barcelona. At the time, his brother Gio [Giovanni dos Santos] was starting to come up and I was asking him if it was the real Barcelona or is it like a random Barcelona team [much like Yanez’s Man United]. Next thing you know, I find out he was playing for the real FC Barcelona and that was the level we were playing at.”
Yanez and dos Santos would become really good friends during their time in the Mexico national U-17 team. While it’s been years since he last talked to dos Santos, Yanez recalls many fond memories with him.
However, despite the wide array of talent on display, the Mexico U-17 team did not qualify for the 2007 U-17 World Cup. It was a huge disappointment for the Mexico team, and it left many perplexed. Two years before, the Mexico U-17 team had won the World Cup in 2005, and thus, it was “odd that the Mexico team couldn’t qualify”. The chance to represent the USA U-17 team was also off the cards because his citizenship processing was not ready. It was only six months after the World Cup when Yanez managed to get his American citizenship.
Crushed Dreams & Learning Outcome at UCLA
With his dreams to play in the U-17 crushed and his UCLA scholarship jeopardised as a result, tragedy struck once again. This time, it sounded the death knell for his footballing aspirations.
“This thing happens to me. I was going for happen to the ball and the defender pushes me in such a way that my foot fell into this small hole in the field. These aren’t the synthetic grass field that we are used to now. These were old school grass pitches. So yeah, I tore my ligaments. I remember asking myself if there was much more to life? The funny thing is that I had asked myself that question before. I remember a year before I was with the national [U-17] team and played internationally and wasn’t satisfied. I had always been a happy person but I was looking for fulfilment. So, there was that little nudge to look at something more in life than just being famous.”
The injury led to Yanez suffering from depression and made him question the purpose of living if he can’t get to where he needed to be, which was the national team set-up. The football dream did live on for a bit at UCLA. UCLA had always been Yanez’s back up plan. The goal was to always go pro and play for the national team.
“When I tore my ligament, I couldn’t play at the level I wanted to play at. I had a very tough time at UCLA [because of that]. I mean I was there for four years and I was committed to the University but I never recovered fully to be able to play at the level that I wanted to. I spent a lot of time on the bench, and I was dealing with other injuries. So, what happens is that when you’re pushing your body to compensate for the torn ligament, other injured happened. I had all this downtime and it was then when I really started to study the game because I had all this downtime.”
Stepping Into Coaching
At the back of his mind, Yanez felt like coaching might be his calling instead. His footballing career officially ended at UCLA in 2011, and the career in coaching thus began. Yanez thought he could make a living out of coaching if he remained committed to the craft but also knew he had to be open to moving around the country whenever an opening came up. He was coaching club soccer for a while when an opening at a local high school became available, where he was appointed as head coach. And thus, Yanez juggled both roles at the club and high school for the next year or so.
The more Yanez coached, the more he applied what he learned while studying sessions at UCLA. From strength and agility conditioning to nutrition and the psychological aspect of the game, he started to analyse the game from different perspectives. He realised it was a viable career, but the club and high school he was coaching at were not paying him much – they were only stipends.
“That’s when I started applying for all these college jobs. They got back to me saying I had a great playing resume but zero coaching experience. So, I was telling them to give me a chance. The only person that was willing to give me a chance was Chris Keller at Wabash College in the middle of nowhere in Indiana. It was also an all-male institution and I was like ‘what is this place?’ but I was also ready to go. People often tell me I did it backwards. People from Indiana often want to go to California but I did the opposite, I went to Indiana instead.”
In 2013, Yanez signed as a coach for Wabash College as part of Keller’s backroom staff. For the next 3 seasons, Yanez would learn a lot from Keller, who became one of his best friends. The first season with Wabash was a huge shock for Yanez as the Little Giants had a record of 4-11-2 (4 Wins, 11 Draws and 2 Losses). Coming from UCLA, Yanez was part of a team that had a habit of winning. Having rarely lost a match, it took time for him to adjust to the different challenge that the Little Giants posed.
Yet, Keller and Yanez managed to turn things around the following season, and they had a far improved 13-3-3 record. Yanez explains how Keller’s vision was so strong that everyone believed in him.
“I don’t think I had a weekend off in the 2 to 3 years I was working with him. We were majorly recruiting all over the country. I knew every player by name and we knew what type of player we wanted to get every year. I was mainly working on the development of younger talent. I set a programme up for progression for the future. And so, till this day, Wabash continues to have major winning seasons. They haven’t had a losing season ever since.”
After 3 years with Keller, Yanez wanted to explore a role as a head coach but that’s when he joined up with the Jesuits and so he hasn’t really explored his full potential as a coach just yet. That may very well change soon. Recently, his superiors have given him the green light to get involved with coaching yet again. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced many leagues to cancel and thus his coaching ambitions are on a temporary hold right now. One thing is for sure. This isn’t the last you’d hear from Victor Yanez.
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