Home Grown Success: The Rise of the IER Soccer Team
In the Inland Empire, many current residents are transplants from neighboring counties such as Los Angeles and Orange County, but very few are born and raised in the IE. Even within that minority, there are not many who have lived here for generations. So with that context, one individual's work to spotlight local soccer talent and bring a title to the region is something coach Gabriel Placencia takes pride in.
Soccer in the United States is niche in terms of division structure where the general public may not understand. To put it simply, US soccer can be compared to Baseball. At the top of US Soccer is the MLS, the 1st division, where familiar teams like LA Galaxy and LAFC play. Below that is United Soccer Leagues-Championship AKA USL-C at division 2. In division 3, there are two different leagues; United Soccer Leagues-1, aka USL 1, and National Independent Soccer Association, aka NISA. Below that, there is an abundance of adult amateur leagues that are national and regional. So this structure can be related to Baseball, where MLS is MLB, USL C is AAA, and so forth. Currently, there are around 16 adult amateur men's teams in the region, and the Inland Empire Republic soccer team is one of them.
IER competes in two adult amateur leagues: the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) and the SoCal Premier. The UPSL is a national league with over 400 clubs across the country, with certain regions having two divisions: Premier division being the top tier and Division 1 being the 2nd tier. In contrast, the SoCal premier is an older but more regional league that extends to the IE, LA, and Orange counties. They also have multiple divisions like the UPSL: the Premier Division is the 1st tier, and the 2nd division is the second tier. So the moment the COVID restrictions have been lifted in California, IER put two teams in both leagues: their first team played in Division 1 of the UPSL and their reserve/2nd team in the SoCal premier- premier division.
The story of IER starts with the soccer career of coach Gabriel Placencia. His family has been in the region since the early 1900s and has never left the San Bernardino/Colton area. Born in San Bernardino in 1988, Gabriel has been playing soccer since he was five years old. He got into soccer administration at 11 with clubs like Gauchos & Arsenal in the Redlands and Riverside area. Coach Gabe eventually made it to high school soccer, playing and graduating from San Berardino high school. After that, he started coaching at San Berardino Valley college for the men's program in 2012, where he still coaches. Then in 2017, he had a short coaching stint with Riverside Coras, an adult amateur club from another national adult soccer league called the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). It was this experience of seeing the ins & outs of how an adult amateur team is run that he decided to make a team of his own in 2019. "I love my city, I love the Inland Empire, the athleticism here not only in soccer but in every sport is the reason why the IE is a hot spot for sports" when asked about his opinion of the region and why he wanted to start a team.
His vision of the club was to be different from the pay-to-play clubs—a club where he would cover the expenses of a club like uniforms and equipment. For the majority of the team's existence, IER players didn't pay any fees. He also wanted to be different by providing a second opportunity for local players. "Not everyone can showcase thier talent, everyone's development is different. A majority of our players are from the IE and we try to keep a percentage from here." Another fact is that coach Placencia makes decisions with his teammates, which is an essential factor in the psychology of a winning team.
In the vision of Placencia, the club would be based in the city of San Bernardino, but the resources in the town in terms of available fields were not ideal for planting their flag. After all, their team crest is an outline of the San Bernardino mountains with the iconic Arrowhead. Temporary, the club's home base was Bloomington high school since Gabriel had a connection there. At the beginning of the 2020 UPSL season in early March, IER started its first-ever season as a club. Their first challenge was against Sporting Club California on the road, and like a dream, they get their first-ever victory by a score of 3-0. After that, the whole world shut down, literally. "It was very challenging on the administration side of it, as far as the team side of things, I didn't feel it was too challenged. I'm blessed with the group of guys i'm with". It was tough for the coach to tell his squad that their first game ever would be their last till further notice. The UPSL would cancel that season, and IER would have to wait for a little more than a year to return to action.
As the COVID hit throughout the state, the return to sports eventually came this last spring. Coach Placencia fielded the 1st team in Division 1 of the UPSL and a reserve team in the SoCal Premier- Premier division. The goal for Gabriel was to play competitive soccer and to show that they are a community-based team. In his words, when soccer time came back, the players reached out to him in floods wanting to get a spot for the team, with 58 players rostered for both the first and reserve squad. Even if some players didn't make the final cut, they wanted to train with the team, and Gabriel said, of course. With the army of players at his disposal, IER hit the ground running in the UPSL and the SoCal Premier.
Their numbers for the UPSL season were very impressive. In their first official season, IER finished in 2nd place in a ten-game season where they lost only once to 1st place team Soul 2 Sole. They went on to score 34 goals and only allowed 13 goals in the whole season. Placing in 2nd meant they advanced to the quarterfinals of the promotional playoffs, where they first faced Verdugos. The winner of the promotional playoffs would get a spot in the UPSL Premier Division the following season. In that match against Verdugos, IER shut out their opponents 2-0 to advance in the semifinals. Then for the semifinals in Fontana's Ralph Lewis Sports Complex, IER would get an early lead within the first two minutes against their opponents California Rush. Afterward, the visitors took control of the game and defeated IER 4-2. "That Cal Rush team, they played great, they were young, but they were smart, and they were the better team that day. For the time given before the game and the way we performed, I wasn't disapointed". Their promotion hopes ended there.
For their SoCal Premier team also had impressive numbers during the season. One notable difference between SoCal Prem and the UPSL is that the SoCal Premier-Premier division has no playoffs, so the team with the most points wins the league at the end of the season. They finished that season with seven wins and two losses, which placed them in 2nd place after week 10. Out of the 11 teams competing in the Premier Division, only one team, Magia Academy, had three make-up games to play as they rescheduled their SoCal Prem games for another tournament. In week ten, Magia was in 1st place and undefeated with six wins and 18 points. Afterward, they finished with that other tournament and planned to play their remaining SoCal Prem games. However, the team decided not to play their remaining games; when asked why this was the case, the team did not respond. Under SoCal Premier league rules, when a team drops from the league, all games will be forfeited for pending and previous matches, which means IER's record improves to 8-0-1. They automatically get bumped up to first place. By default, IER wins the SoCal Premier-Premier title, their first-ever trophy as a club of little to two years old.
"It was a big surpirse when we heard the news and we were grateful for everything from the players on the field and off the field as well as the teams who brought their all. It was unfortunate the other team couldn't finish thier finals games because we believe in competing in all fairness. It had to be tough for them," coach Gabe said when asked his thoughts about winning the league. A series of quotes not often said by coaches.
As for the team's future, IER will take a break from the UPSL fall season, which runs from August to November, and will return in 2022. For the SoCal Premier team, most of those players play at the junior college level, which means those players would focus more on their college season. However, in December, the first team plans to compete in tournaments like Copa Alianza, a national organization dedicated to supporting and developing amateur Hispanic soccer in the United States. They also plan to play a tournament in Oregan next March and neighboring states in other competitions.
Overall, a young team like IER has many potentials to be a wrecking force in the local adult amateur scene with local talent and a smart, humble, and honest coach. With competitive and talented regions like Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego, the IE has tough competition in terms of talent. Although IER isn't the only team in the region, their story and the people behind it have one thing that sets them apart from the rest; they were born and raised in the IE. In one season and two different competitions, they lost less than five games against competition from LA, Orange County, and the IE. While it is just one season, their level of play and coordination gives them lots of promise for the future; the foundation is set. IER is a team not to ignore; nothing can replace the passion of a person who cares more about their community than someone raised by that same community.