Hector Cano-Head Women’s Soccer Coach Ysleta High School (Image credit: Ysleta ISD)

Hector Cano is the Head Varsity Women’s Soccer Coach at Ysleta High School in El Paso.  A decorated Air Force veteran with multiple combat tours, he was seriously wounded in action in Iraq while working as part of a Special Warfare team, requiring years of recovery time and physical therapy before he resumed his career in a different Air Force field.  Cano began his soccer coaching career while on active duty with semipro teams in Europe and later in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Academy.  After retiring from active duty, Cano moved to San Antonio and began coaching soccer at a local TAPPS High School.  Originally from El Paso, he returned there two years ago with his wife and two daughters in an effort to help his family. 

In addition to his High School coaching duties, Cano is a character, leadership, and college soccer recruiting consultant and consults many student-athletes and programs across the country, while also working closely with Prep1; a high school athlete recruiting and marketing platform based out of El Paso. The objective is to help student-athletes become discovered and receive the proper exposure for their college soccer careers.  He currently holds Premier, Director of Coaching, and Performance Analysis diplomas from United Soccer Coaches, a U.S. Soccer Federation National “C” and National Youth License, and plans to pursue both his Master of Coaching diploma from United Soccer Coaches and his UEFA “B” License.   

Texas Soccer Journal (TSJ):  How did you get started in soccer?

Hector Cano:  When I was in high school, I was a multi-sport athlete, including soccer.  I didn’t play youth soccer because back then, it wasn’t what it is now.  I had a relatively promising boxing career with a legitimate shot at challenging for the 1996 Olympic trials.  You must commit to that.  The Olympics did not happen, but I stopped playing high school level soccer when I pursued the Olympics dream.  Shortly after High School, I enlisted in the military.  While stationed with the Air Force in Europe, I returned to soccer, still playing kick arounds and pick-up games. I started playing on a couple of Base teams and later became one of a handful of Americans playing on local semipro teams, primarily in Italy and Germany.  That is what brought me back to the sport.

TSJ:  After leaving the Air Force, what made you decide to continue your career as a soccer coach?

Cano:  I got banged up a couple of times while playing on the semipro teams in Europe.  So, I started helping the coaching staff. That’s kind of where I got the bug in terms of coaching.  Inevitably one day, I stopped playing, and I started coaching with the semipro team in Italy, helping as an assistant.  My coaching career took off from there. 

I was still on active duty and later selected for a special assignment at the Air Force Academy.  Once people knew where I was going, they shared with the appropriate people at the Academy that I wanted to be a coach.  So, I became the Head Coach at the Academy Prep School in Colorado Springs and later became an assistant for their DI Women’s Soccer program.  Even though I was still on active duty, I had the bug at that point and knew that this was what I wanted to do with my post-Air Force career.

After retiring from the Air Force at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, I moved to San Antonio and was fortunate to get a coaching job at Saint Mary’s Hall High School. That is how I ended up in the High School game.

TSJ:  Who were your coaching mentors?

Cano:  They didn’t come along obviously until I entered the coaching ranks, which was around 2009- 2010. There were two, both from my coaching days in Colorado.  One was Gary Evans, a former professional player for Liverpool.  The other was Larry Friend, who still to this day is the Head Women’s Soccer Coach at the Air Force Academy.  Gary Evans was the Director of Coaching for the Pride Soccer Club in Colorado Springs, my initial club coaching job.  I picked up a tremendous number of things from both of them. I got a crash course on how not just to be a head coach or a director of coaching for an entire club, but also the leadership and managerial duties that go into being the head coach. Things like adapting to different players’ personalities, large-scale player pathways, coaching development, and talent identification.

Hector Cano pre and post Pandemic at Ysleta High School (Image credit: Hector Cano and S3 Sports/Prep1)

TSJ: Can you share a little bit about the Ysleta High School Girls Team you currently coach?

Hector Cano:  Ysleta High School in El Paso is a 2-5A classification school and plays in District 258, a highly competitive district.  When I moved over here from San Antonio in 2019, I took over a program that had underperformed for years.  Ysleta was not known as a program for producing strong soccer players or soccer culture.  The team had talent but maybe lacked the organizational structure and discipline necessary to deliver results.  So, I knew that it would be a complete rebuild, especially on the culture side, which, to a certain extent, is standard for whenever a new head coach comes in.

Last year (2019/20) was my first year, and it turned out to be an incredible one. We missed out on the playoffs by two games, but we won 10 games for the first time in, what somebody told me was 13 years. We also had a player selected for the All-City team for the first time in seven or eight years and had seven girls receive 42 offers to play college soccer.  So, we are in our second year now.  Because of the pandemic, I needed to replace a substantial part of the roster, something I didn’t expect.  Other schools have also been affected, so we’re not making excuses.  Ysleta is off to a good start in District play so far.

TSJ:  You have been back in El Paso for roughly 18 months now.  Having grown up here and now returned, what are your impressions about how soccer has changed in the region?

Cano:  I believe it’s a little more technically polished, and that’s a lot of credit to the club coaches in the area. It’s slightly more structured across the city but still far behind in terms of organizational makeup.  I guess you could say it’s probably where South Texas was maybe 10 or 12 years ago.  Leagues are still trying to figure things out in terms of their future.  There is no ECNL, Girl’s Academy, or MLS NEXT here. So, what you see are challenges arising from the relative isolation of El Paso from the rest of the soccer community.

The good part about this insulation, from my perspective, is that technically we are slightly more polished.  You find many players here who possess a particular type of flair because of the soccer influence from Northern Mexico.   Sometimes, players from other Texas large cities can look, under the system that they grew up in, somewhat cookie-cutter, if that makes sense. You’re not going to find that here necessarily-and that is a good thing. You’re going to find players that love being on the ball. That’s what I mean by a flair; very much a one vs. one mindset, a go-to goal mindset, and very technically skilled. 

TSJ:  El Paso now has a professional team (not counting teams from Ciudad Juarez) for the first time in decades.  Has the arrival of USL Championship’s El Paso Locomotive impacted the local soccer community in their two years of existence?

Cano:  Absolutely.  The community is entirely behind the Locomotive after their first two successful seasons in the USL Championship.  I think Locomotive’s eventual identity will solidify if and when they get their own stadium.  The Downtown location of the current stadium where the team plays is a great setting, but it is a baseball stadium.  Coach Mark Lowry who came from Jacksonville and, originally England, has also embraced the region, which has helped the club’s growth. 

They are also getting their Youth Academy off the ground, led by a local former high school coach from a top-notch program.  So, I think their arrival has been a good thing for the entire youth community.  I see many similarities to San Antonio FC, who I watched grow their Elite Training Program (ETP) and Academy program while living in San Antonio. I anticipate that the Locomotive will take a similar approach, maybe ramping it up faster, because they are an ambitious and strategic group that knows what they are doing.  I guess the only thing that may slow it down or force them to readjust is the impact of the pandemic.

TSJ:  Speaking of Juarez, your High School is located a few blocks from the border.  What impact does this have on your soccer program or how you interact with the soccer community in general?

Cano:  We have many kids who live in Mexico and attend school in El Paso.  They may have relatives in El Paso who they stay with during the week, and then they cross back on the weekend. Sometimes one parent may be on one side of the border and the other on the other side.  As a coach, getting practice started on-time because we practice early in the morning can be challenging.  I view this situation as less of a challenge and more a genuine sign of student-athletes who want to be there, love the game, and represent their school and community.  We are not the only high school in El Paso right next to the border, so other schools also face this situation.  It is a unique set of circumstances that most parents, players, and high schools would never be able to comprehend.

Hector Cano started a new media venture, The 50/50 Podcast, two months ago.  His goal with this undertaking is to help unify the High School Soccer community in Texas, emphasizing connecting student-athletes and their parents with college coaches and demystifying the recruiting process. In addition, The 50/50 Podcast covers the Texas club and college soccer scene.   Randy Waldrum, University of Pittsburgh Women’s Head Coach and former Head Coach of NWSL’s Houston Dash was among the first guests.       

TSJ:  You started a new podcast (50/50 Podcast) recently.  What prompted you to take this step, and what are the objectives for this new media venture? 

Hector Cano:  As a High School coach, I have seen that youth soccer is primarily about Club soccer.  What club you play on, DI college soccer scholarships, and professional opportunities.  I don’t knock that, but I’m a firm believer that both high school and youth clubs can and should coexist.  So, when I started thinking about this more than a year ago, I wanted to find a way to get information out there about the Texas High School soccer scene.  To help bring coaches together, to support one another, and embrace the love for the High School game.  I decided to start the 50/50 Podcast as the first step in this journey. Our mission is to tell the stories about the people and for the people who are dedicated to the beautiful game in our communities across the great state of Texas.

TSJ:  Who is the target audience for your Podcast?

Cano: It doesn’t matter where you are in the state; we’re trying to reach all of the coaches.  We are also trying to connect with parents and student-athletes because we are also a college recruiting platform.  My role as a college recruiting consultant and previous work as a DI coach and recruiting coordinator makes this a natural focus of our forum. As a college soccer recruiting platform, part of our objective is to provide a format where both parents and student-athletes can go as they begin the college soccer recruiting journey – separating do’s from don’ts, myths from facts. 

A significant focus of the Podcast will be to interview college coaches and introduce them to our student-athletes and parents here in Texas.  Provide them with an opportunity to showcase their programs and share what makes their school academically unique and differentiates their soccer program.  We will also interview high school and club coaches too.  Even though our primary focus is the state of Texas, we will inevitably have a regional and ultimately a national reach as we bring in college coaches from across the country.   

TSJ:  A few years from now, what criteria will you use to determine if you have successfully achieved your goals? 

Cano:  In terms of the Podcast, that’s an evolving question I ask myself frequently.  We recently introduced a Twitter hashtag #TXHSSOC.  We are working to promote this hashtag across the programs and all Texas High School soccer coaches.  The Podcast and this hashtag’s primary emphasis is to grow the Texas High School soccer game through student-athletes, coaches, parents, and others involved with the game.  If they can identify with the game, then they can take pride in it.  Our listeners will also help validate our success through the feedback they provide.  If supporters, casual listeners, but mostly student-athletes and parents get something from an interview that is new information to them, this venture will succeed. 

Hector Cano at 2021 Ysleta High School match (Image credit: S3 Sports/Prep1)

TSJ:  You have coached in both San Antonio and El Paso and out of state.  What are your thoughts about what characterizes Texas soccer or makes it unique? 

Hector Cano:  Texas is somewhat a country into itself, and it is hard to put one stamp on it.  I do find that when we make up our minds to compete for something, we are going to show up and do it with pride.  Also, we have different types of cultural influences that create a kind of uniqueness.  As I discussed in an earlier question, soccer in the border regions is different than in the DFW Metroplex.  You can also see these influences in certain parts of the other large cities, but the big suburban clubs have great resources and coaches to create their own local style that develops as they compete regionally. 

Finally, though I found many great players in Colorado, there is so much more depth and wealth of Texas talent than you see in most other places.  Some of this can be attributed to the sheer population difference compared to other states, but you don’t see a significant drop-off in talent when you get below the elite level of players here. Much of this is also attributed to the emphasis on technical development and tactical sophistication of many great coaches across the state.        

TSJ:  If you could wave a magic wand, what would you have U.S. Soccer change or adopt to help you as a coach or be a resource for players to pursue their college soccer dreams? 

Cano: I think they need to continue to open up their coaching education program.  It seems like there is a ceiling on where coaches can go.  Where coaches are currently working can determine if they can attend the next course. Not to mention many aspiring coaches are simply “priced-out” due to the ridiculous expense to attend many out-of-town courses.  I believe it is clearly understood that trained coaches create better players. Coaching development is a must as I subscribe to the belief that “Better Coaches = Better Players.”  So I would like to see U.S. Soccer open the doors for more courses and coaching education. 

I also would like to see a more diverse set of coaches, reflective of the country’s makeup, be seriously considered for jobs at all levels of U.S. Soccer.  We need more Latino and Women coaches, for example.  This diversity is our biggest strength, but many believe that U.S. Soccer, either directly or indirectly, may not be as open to letting people through these doors as it should be.     

I also see grass-roots player development as a critical role.  I am a big believer in setting up Futsal courts across the country.  Norway has a great program where Futsal courts are in place all over the country.  I know we are a big country, but there are many urban areas where we could add multiple Futsal courts and help grow the talent that exists all over the country.

TSJ:  Is there a story from your coaching career you would like to share?

Cano:  Yes, a personal, powerful moment for me.  You hear the cliché that things happen for a reason, but this is true for how my soccer coaching path began.  When I was wounded in combat in 2003, I was told that there was a good chance I would never walk again.  Other personal difficulties resulted, and I joke that my life was like a country song.  I was paralyzed from the waist down with a severe spine injury, hospitalized for a few months, and in a wheelchair for ten more.  A couple of months before I would have been medically retired from the Air Force, I started walking again; I think a small personal miracle due to the power of prayers, support from friends and family, and tremendous help from medical staff, who had to put-up with me (laughs). 

While I was hospitalized, there used to be a lady who came by two or three times a day with reading material for the ward with seriously wounded servicemen and women where I was living.  One day she gave me a magazine that had a long spread talking about the positive power of role models.  The article made the point that coaches frequently filled in as missing father figures, sharing the stories of a few student-athletes around the country.  It got me thinking back to my time as a semipro coach in Europe, and the article really struck me.  I had never thought coaching was something that I would ever do as a career.   At that moment, despite my uncertain future, my next calling hit me in terms of wanting to be a coach.  Now you will find that I personally always capitalize the word Coach because I view it as not a job but a calling. 

At one of the lowest moments of my life, I was able to find what the eventual next phase of my life would be.  Sometimes, things do happen for a reason, and I am grateful and wouldn’t change my destiny for the world.

TSJ:  Is there anything else we have missed?

Cano:  While I wouldn’t say I like sharing this story much, I believe the public should be aware of many veterans’ battles upon return.  I am trying to make it my mission to get soccer organizations (club, school, professional} to realize that Veterans make tremendous employees and crave to be part of something bigger than themselves, especially right after they leave Active Duty.  The first five years post-retirement/separation is critical for Vets.

Hector Cano on active-duty with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq (Image credit: Hector Cano)

TSJ Editorial Comment: When I hear stories like this from combat veterans, I am humbled and grateful for the sacrifices Coach Cano and countless others have made for our country.  As a veteran myself, I agree with Coach Cano’s opinions about the role veterans can play in the soccer community and the importance of the first few years after they transition from the service.