ENCINITAS — When the San Diego Sockers hosted their home opener Dec. 15 at the Pechanga Arena San Diego, hundreds of children donning red and white jerseys cheered them on from the stands.
Several of those kids then took to the pitch during halftime as part of the halftime entertainment.
The kids are part of the Cardiff Mustangs, a competitive and recreational soccer program in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. And their presence in the stands and in the halftime show is the product of a unique bond between the Sockers — the nation’s premier professional indoor soccer franchise — and the club, forged several years ago by chance.
Today, Sockers captain Kraig Chiles is the director of the Sockers program and a number of the team’s players coach the club’s 22 competitive girls and boys teams.
In 2011, however, Chiles was the Major Arena Soccer League’s rising star, and coaching a youth team wasn’t on his radar — until a persistent parent asked him to sign a ball for his kid’s birthday.
That parent was Dan Van Dyck, a Mustangs board member, who was hoping to redeem himself after failing to sign his son up for a birthday shout out at a Sockers home game.
“I was playing in a Sockers game when this parent, Dan, annoyed me for a soccer ball for his son’s birthday, and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m in the middle of a game,’” Chiles recalled. “But later, I walked the ball up to his son, Cody. A week later, he emailed me, like, ‘you have to come up and do this clinic.’”
Van Dyck recalls the fateful meeting with a chuckle. He said that he wasn’t “hip to the birthday shout out,” so he didn’t realize he was supposed to sign Cody up. Realizing it after it was too late, he said he saw Chiles, who was injured, and approached him about signing the ball.
“I told him that my 7-year-old would lose his mind if you could get him a ball and say happy birthday to him,” Van Dyck said.
Sure enough, he said, Chiles brought Cody a ball signed by the entire Sockers team. A week later, he said, he tracked him down through social media and made the pitch about coaching a clinic.
Chiles said at the time, four years into his professional career, he wasn’t ready to coach, but he eventually relented and did a clinic.
“It was a blast,” Van Dyck said. “We did a season of clinics, it was amazing and the response was great from the kids and the parents.”
Beyond that, Chiles said, he saw a soccer club that had potential for growth.
“Here was this rec program without a real competitive branch above it, it was in this fantastic area in San Diego, had this huge field being developed (Encinitas Community Park), and I thought, ‘Dude, this would be a nice place to build a club,’” said Chiles, who grew up in San Diego County and graduated from Poway High and San Diego State.
From there, the connection between the Sockers and the Mustangs was born.
Today, the club has grown from just two competitive teams to 26 boys and girls programs from ages 8 to 18, and the kids receive top-notch coaching from players from the Sockers’ main and developmental teams.
“If you have good coaching, players will come out,” Chiles said.
While not quite the size of powerhouse programs such as Albion Soccer Club in San Diego, or the Carlsbad Galaxy to the north, Chiles said the program has a reputation throughout the region for quality, disciplined soccer teams, and players that are able to compete at the collegiate level.
And the players, in turn, show their gratitude to the coaches by supporting them at their games. The halftime show is one of many times the Mustangs players have been featured at Sockers games.
“I’d put (their attendance at home games) up against some of the bigger clubs in San Diego,” Chiles said. “It’s fantastic, we’re with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they get to see if we are practicing what we are preaching to them. You see them show up Saturday, and as a player, it holds you accountable when you have 100 families watching you play thinking about what you are telling them as players and how you are performing and your actions on the field.”
Of course, it helps the kids, too, as the Sockers are the most successful indoor soccer franchise in the country, winning 14 indoor titles in its history. Chiles likens the club to the “New York Yankees” of indoor soccer.
But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Sockers players aren’t the Yankees. They are “coach.”
“It’s why we do it, it’s fulfilling as an individual to help mold and develop some of these young players and to help them get to where they want to be, on and off the field,” Chiles said.