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Coach unites a Worthington neighborhood through soccer

Mario Cordova was a semi-pro soccer player in his homeland of El Salvador, and wants to build the next generation of soccer players in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON — A new community soccer program established on a bare plot of grass in Worthington’s Watland Park has experienced a number of successes in its first four months, but none greater than introducing a neighborhood of kids to a competitive sport filled with fun.

Even as rain drops pelted them last Thursday afternoon, members of the newly formed Worthington United teams — U9 for ages 5 to 8; U11 for ages 9 to 10 and U14 for ages 11 to 14 — flashed big grins as they kicked soccer balls and sometimes fell flat on their backs due to the rain-soaked surface.

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Worthington United Coach Mario Cordova (front) takes a selfie with some of the members on the youngest of the Worthington United teams. (Special to The Globe)

The teams are coached by Mario Cordova, who played semi-professional soccer (fútbol) in his home country of El Salvador before moving to the United States and gaining his citizenship here.

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“At the time, it was very difficult — the economy in El Salvador was really bad,” Cordova said with the aid of a translator. “I couldn’t go forward with it, but I want to bring that opportunity to the kids of Worthington and they can go further.

“When I was playing professionally, my big goal was to represent my country,” he added. “Now that I’m in Worthington, I feel moved to do the same thing and see the kids do that as well.”

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Worthington United Coach Mario Cordova (back row in orange top) started three community soccer leagues in Worthington this summer, bringing kids together from the Watland Park neighborhood to learn the sport. (Special to The Globe)

The energetic Cordova has grown the team from 12 athletes in July to 28 in August and 48 in September.

“When it’s something positive — when you have a good idea — it’s contagious,” Cordova said. “A lot of people want to join. Every practice, some parents call and ask if they can bring their kids.”

He wants to continue the soccer program year-round, but is struggling to make the connections needed to find an indoor practice space once winter weather hits. In Worthington since 2010, Cordova is still learning to navigate the way things are done here.

“I would like to rent a space to be able to play — it’s an opportunity for the kids,” he said. “If I had the money, I would build my own place or rent something right away. Economically, we’re not as privileged. That’s a huge barrier.”

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Still, Cordova continues to build his dream team, volunteering his time to lead practices, and his money to purchase equipment and get team members to out-of-town games.

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Mario Cordova goes over soccer plays with his team during a game this summer. (Special to The Globe)

“Sometimes my wife and I drive with three to four other cars,” he said. “When we travel to a different place, some people on the team don’t bring food or they don’t bring money.

“We want to be more organized and have a budget,” he added. “It’s really hard to become more established because of the lack of support — especially from people who could coach. They don’t want to do it for free.”

Cordova has a training program ready to begin working with teams indoors, but says the grass at Watland Park will work for now.

“It’s accessible and it’s decent,” he said. “It’s leveled enough so kids don’t get hurt.”

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Worthington United Coach Mario Cordova (back row with arms raised) started three community soccer leagues in Worthington this summer, bringing kids together from the Watland Park neighborhood to learn the sport. (Special to The Globe)

Worthington United stands up to its name, with team members representing second and third generation Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Mexican, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Lao and Thai immigrants.

Cordova does his best to train in English, and admits with a grin that he’s working to improve his English-speaking skills. If the kids don’t understand what he says, all they need to do is watch.

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A Worthington United player practices his kicking last Thursday at Watland Park in Worthington. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Cordova was introduced to soccer at a young age and put a lot of passion and hard work into improving himself in the sport. He is using that training and education to build Worthington United.

“I want these kids to learn that they have the power and strength to do and be what they want,” he said. “I see a lot of potential in these kids — and it’s not just for the kids, it’s for the parents and the coaches.”

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Worthington United team members and coaches pose for a photo at one of their tournaments this summer. (Special to The Globe)

Since Worthington United isn’t fully registered as a team, Cordova said they’ve been in “friendly tournaments,” competing against other newly established and unregistered teams in cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Sioux City, Iowa. Already, the players have won some championship games.

On Oct. 23, Worthington United will host teams from Mitchell and Yankton, South Dakota in a local tournament.

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A Worthington United player practices his kicking last Thursday at Watland Park in Worthington. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Team practices are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. at Watland Park, and assisting Cordova with practice and coaching are Juan Quijano, Yao Thammalong, Mike Semere and Juan Gomez.

Anyone who is willing and able to help the team may contact Cordova through the Worthington United: Youth Soccer League Facebook page.

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Worthington United Coach Mario Cordova (in white) goes over plays with his soccer team during a tournament this summer. (Special to The Globe)

Related Topics: SOCCER
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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