CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — This spring a new soccer team will be taking the pitch in Corpus Christi. That would be the Corpus Christi Shakas, a semi-professional soccer team competing in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).
“Well I mean, we don’t get a lot of opportunities down here," said Diego Franco, a Corpus Christi native. "So, just the fact that we have one is, that was enough for me to even tryout."
Santos Pagan, the founder, owner and an athlete for the shakas, said he wanted another avenue to reach his dreams and to help others
“This adds another opportunity for players to showcase themselves. I know there is the Corpus Christi Sharks, but this is another outlet for players to potentially go pro and their dreams," he said. "My dream is to go pro. The whole goal for this team is to make it a pro team.”
Pagan said he's been playing locally for a while and previously played for another UPSL team in San Antonio, but it became tiresome.
"Traveling back and forth was a lot of things to do," said Pagan. "Back home here, jobs, everything like that. So, it kind of just got a little bit tiring for me."
In June 2022 he got the ball rolling on creating this team. All UPSL teams are individually owned and operated but require sponsorships to succeed.
On Jan. 21, the Shakas held an open tryout. Roughly 40 local athletes tried to start making the dream a reality.
One being Achref Bumnigel who moved to the city from Tunisia about a year ago. He wanted to see how his skills match up, having never played in an official league.
“There’s a lot people who will actually play for fun, but they’re really good players and they’re out there," Bumnigel said. "And, they didn’t have a chance to find a place to play professionally.”
More hope was given to these athletes in January, when former King High School soccer player Emmanuel Iwe was drafted to Minnesota United in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Super Draft. It's showed there is a pathway for these young men.
“It just made me more hungry," Pagan said. "So, absolutely. Making this team is more beneficial for people to see that, that opportunity is there.”
Athletes 17 years and older are eligible to play, that includes high school students. According to the UPSL website the average age of the teams in 2022 was 22.5 years.
Players aren’t paid, so as to keep any collegiate eligibility alive.
The UPSL is in the fourth tier of U.S professional soccer pyramid. The top of the pyramid is of course playing in the MLS. Below that is the United Soccer League (USL) Championship division. Tier three includes USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). Tier four includes the UPSL, USL League Two and National Premier Soccer League. The Corpus Christi Sharks compete in USL League Two.
What these leagues have in common is most compete in a yearly tournament called the U.S. Open Cup. Teams as small as the Corpus Christi Shaka have the chance to move up through the tournament and potentially play MLS teams. It's an opportunity these athletes would relish.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of intense feelings," said Bumnigel. "And, it’s going to be a lot of pressure, but we will try to do our best if we make it and made a team here in Corpus Christi because there’s a lot of talent here.”
"It's a great opportunity," said Franco. "It will me an a lot, honestly, just the fact that they're able to come down here or for us to even go up there."
UPSL teams rely on sponsorships to remain sustainable.
"There's only so much you can personally do," said Pagan. "And, I have my staff over here helping out. Lots of money and just a good commitment from the community as well."
Gates Donut Shop and The Training Room have signed on to sponsor the Shakas.
The Shakas have their first match in the Texas Open State Cup on Jan. 29 in Leon Valley versus Corinthians FC of San Antonio. Two seasons are played a year. The first regular season begins in March with a home location to be determined.
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