Sondheimer: Contreras High soccer team is a true L.A. story

If you want inspiration to think about how far you’ve come and where you want to go, seeing the glistening lights of L.A.’s tallest skyscrapers from Belmont High’s downtown stadium that rests on a hill sends you into a dream world. That’s where the final whistle sounded, ending a scoreless soccer match as the day turned to evening. Contreras High players erupted into a delirious celebration that meant more than winning the school’s first league soccer title.

Players sprinted off the field with tears of joy for a group hug and Gatorade drenching of their 27-year-old coach, Eder Puga Garcia. It’s an unforgettable, unfolding L.A. story. It’s about the magic of sports and how players with families from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala came together for the love of soccer and learned life lessons from their boyish-looking social studies teacher and coach who was once just like them.

“There was definitely challenging times,” Garcia said of his teenage years. “I stayed driven. I came this far, and I’m not giving up. We can’t go back. We have to finish out what we’ve started.”

When he was 15, Garcia arrived here with his parents from Mexico speaking no English. He went to Lincoln High while living in Lincoln Heights and his Plan A was to be a professional soccer player. Soon he switched to Plan B — going to Cal State Los Angeles and becoming a teacher.

In 2021-22, the year after COVID-19 shut down sports programs, Contreras lost its soccer coach a week before the season. Garcia volunteered to take over. The team won one game and lost a game 9-1.

“After that loss, the losses kept coming and coming,” senior Davi Cuyuch recalled.

Some players might have quit. With Garcia as coach, players actually were having fun.

“We looked it as a lesson,” Cuyuch said. “We didn’t let it bring us down. It encouraged us to push more.”

Last season Contreras made it to the City Section Division V championship game. This past week, Contreras won its first league soccer championship since the Westlake school opened in 2008. They are a true Los Angeles story about how sports can unite no matter where you come from.

Coach Eder Puga Garcia, 27, talks to his Contreras soccer players.

Coach Eder Puga Garcia, 27, talks to his Contreras soccer players. The team won one regular season game two seasons ago. Now it’s league champion for first time.

(Craig Weston)

“These kids just love to play soccer and love to play together,” Garcia said. “The first year we were playing not to lose. The second year, usually we’d be out of the game in the first half. We started winning, tying more and losing less. This season we started practicing in August, playing in a local league in September, started conditioning in October.”

All the while, players have placed trust and confidence in Garcia, who holds conversations in Spanish and English. He has shown what can happen when you focus on school and soccer.

Garcia’s father became a plumber and his mother runs a restaurant. He’s married and has a daughter and became a U.S. citizen. He’s living in Lynwood, teaching five social studies classes a day and coaching.

“It’s really a dream come true,” he said.

The team’s best player, senior defender Eduardo Villegas, transferred last year from a magnet school that didn’t have a sports program. He knew many of the players from middle school and wanted to reunite on the soccer field.

“We’re making our school proud,” he said. “It’s the first time we’re league champions. It’s fun. You make new friends and learn something new about them every day.”

With Garcia serving as inspiration, players know there’s a future if they want one.

“When we first started, you don’t know anybody,” Cuyuch said. “They have different backgrounds from different places. They turn into your brothers. You share your ambitions, you practice with them every day. It’s one of your best experiences.”

The outpouring of gratitude, satisfaction and love for their coach could be seen after the whistle blew at the end of the scoreless game against Belmont. Players celebrated then charged to the sideline to embrace their coach.

“He’s just a good coach,” goalie Elvin Martinez said. “He’s always giving us advice. He motivates us to come to practice every day.”

Contreras begins play as the No. 1 seed in the City Section Division IV playoffs this week.

Win or lose, Contreras players know there’s a plan they can embrace — going to college and succeeding in life like their coach.