When a Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year is the co-founder of your local soccer club, you have to figure that’s a good sign. 

And we’re lucky to have exactly that in Coach Joe Munoz. He is a driving force behind Mendocino County Soccer Academy’s ability to develop high-quality players and experiences for local kids on and off the pitch. His influence as a teacher, coach, and role-model is felt across our entire 500-player club. 

Dr. Munoz holds a Doctorate in physical therapy, and he attributes much of his career success to the life skills he learned growing up playing soccer. Not only did the sport pay for his undergraduate education, the former pro credits the game for teaching him the discipline, commitment, and accountability needed to succeed in soccer and life. 

Now he’s paying forward what he’s learned to kids in Mendocino County. In addition to serving as a director for the club, he coaches his two sons on the U13 boys’ Blue team. He’s led this group of young men to back-to-back state championship games playing an attractive brand of football. 

Joe grew up in a hotbed of soccer and culture in San Diego. He says, “To this day, there are adult leagues in San Diego that have teams representing countries from around the world. Brazil, Mexico, Panama, European countries. This mix of cultures is what helps make the game so special and unique. I was fortunate to grow up in a place where I learned that soccer is an art and a way of life.”  

Early on, it was clear Joe was a special player. He began playing at five years old in a rec league. By ten, he impressed reluctant older players in his neighborhood to let him play with them, where he quickly earned their respect.

Word began to spread as club coaches saw him play. And at twelve, Joe joined a large club from Chula Vista called the South Bay Select Scorpions.

His coach was a professional player from Portugal named Manny Nieves. The emphasis was on mastering the technical aspect of the game, to be a creative master of the soccer ball. The foundation built with Coach Nieves, and his many coaches along the way, is something Joe utilizes today in working with his players. 

The late bloomer was 5’ 7” and 135 pounds as a senior in high school. However, Joe’s example proves that soccer doesn’t reward size. He was identified by coaches Jeremy Gunn and Simon Tobin from CSU Bakersfield. (Gunn and Tobin are now head coaches at Stanford and San Jose State respectively). Despite having an academic scholarship to UCLA, Joe accepted a soccer scholarship in 1994 at the Division II power. It was there he met fellow freshman, Ukiah native Shane Huff. 

Many of their teammates were older international players, which allowed them to continue their soccer education while excelling on the field. Their freshman year, CSUB lost a shootout in the western regional final. They advanced to the final four as sophomores and the regional final their junior year. As seniors, they took home the ultimate prize, a National Championship. That year, Joe was named National Player of the Year. 

The two not only played together while in college, but they also played in the summers on a semi-pro team from San Luis Obispo. They took home two more national championships, and Joe was named MVP of the Final Four in 1997.

In 1998, he was invited to Major League Soccer (MLS) showcase and was drafted by NY/NJ MetroStars (now the New York Redbulls) number 15 overall. His teammates included US legends such as Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, and Mike Sorber.

Joe spent the preseason in Milan, where the MetroStars faced off against European legend, AC Milan. He played in a game against Portugal’s famous Benfica at the New Jersey Meadowlands in front of 65,000 people. 

Under the intense microscope of New York City, there was intense pressure to make the 18-man roster. At the time, MLS didn’t have reserve teams, and Joe was released halfway through the season. After exploring opportunities abroad, he returned to California, where he continued to play semi-professionally while finishing his education. 

While at Bakersfield, he had started dating Shane’s sister, Lacey. Both of them studied Physical Therapy at Loma Linda in Southern California, and they settled down in Ukiah in 2005 with jobs at Adventist Health. He would fly on the weekends to play semi-professionally for a team from Chico. He did this until 2007 when his son Rio was born.

Joe’s local coaching career was launched during this time when a neighbor approached him for private coaching for his 11-year-old-son.  Joe volunteered as a coach with the Ukiah Pumas, and he ended up meeting and mentoring young players such as Junior Segura, Felipe Chavez, and Victor Hernandez.  All three young men have since earned their own college scholarships and are now MCSA coaches. 

Shane and Joe had talked for years about starting their own soccer club.  Shane returned home, and in 2013, along with co-founder Naomi Rhodes, they launched Mendocino County Soccer Academy.  

It all began with Grassroots Academy for under 6 and 8 year-olds. The philosophy from the beginning has been to keep the ball on the ground, create master artists of the soccer ball, and develop technically sound, creative players. 

Joe explains, “We teach the game the way it is supposed to be played. We know that kids develop differently, so our focus early on is teaching players to become technically proficient. In soccer, size and strength aren’t as important as smarts and creativity. Great soccer players have great minds. In the long run, the smarter, more technical player beats a more physically talented player.”

Our young teams lose games to teams playing “kick-ball soccer” who have bigger, stronger kids. However, developing talented young players is not about winning games; it’s about the process. The winning comes later as they grow and approach their teen years.  

“I’m proud of my u13 boys,” Joe explains. “We got beat a lot when the kids were younger. Now, these boys are playing good football. We’re playing and beating teams from much bigger clubs in the Bay Area. Last year, we dominated the Gold division of the league, and now we’re going to play at a more difficult Premier level this year. We may get beat a lot, but we’re excited about the challenge.” 

“What’s been created here at MCSA is special,” he continues. “I don’t know if people really know or understand what we have to offer. I’m excited to see the club grow and impact more kids and families in the community. Facilities are the key for the long term. A space where winter rains don’t destroy the field and having a place for kids to play year-round. Our own facility will help bring in and develop more players and coaches.”

“Soccer has made me who I am. It taught me the value of discipline, dedication, hard work, and respect. The game has opened a lot of doors I didn’t know were possible. I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve been to Europe, South America, Canada, and Mexico. Soccer paid for my undergraduate education and put me on the path to the career I have now.”

“One of the reasons we started MCSA was to provide quality training and create opportunities for kids,” he adds. “I want them to have the opportunities I had when I was younger. A way to teach those life lessons I had and use the sport as a platform for bigger and better things in their future.”

MCSA is blessed to have a man of such talent and character shaping the youth in our small, rural community. His DNA is embedded in everything we do. It’s, for this reason, we know our future, and the future of our kids is bright.