The name Red Force carries weight in South Florida. These talented amateurs have dominated the top men’s league in Miami ever since joining the senior ranks in 2009. The secret to their success is simple, according to striker and top-scorer Stiven Salinas. It boils down neatly to three words: “Passion, Family and Gabriel.”
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The passion and family parts are easy to parse, but the Gabriel so crucial to Red Force FC’s glories on the pitch is one Gabriel Vega, 56. He’s the head coach, club founder and beating heart. “He truly feels what he does,” said Salinas, who came to the U.S. from Colombia on a full scholarship to Florida State University. “He’s there for us, for all the players. For him, Red Force is a family. And for the guys who’ve been around a while, he’s like a parent.”
Vega didn’t plan to give birth to the best amateur club in Miami, but that’s just what he’s done. He founded Red Force as a youth team. And in 2009, the club joined the senior ranks with a core of players who had been together for years, learning to play the game with passion and panache.
By now, on the eve of their third U.S. Open Cup in the space of five years, they are a fast-moving, short-passing team with big ambitions and the credentials to match. They won the South Florida Premier League four times in a row. They’ve lifted a State Cup and a Florida Open Cup and had successes at the regional level too. And they’ve done it all with a focus on ball possession and a distinctly Latin American flair befitting an international crossroads like Miami.
“With the exception of one player from Nigeria, all of our players either come from South America or have roots there,” said Coach Vega, whose passion for River Plate, the super-club from his native Argentina, is famous among his players. “We have players from every corner of South America: Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. It’s part of who we are. And it’s part of how we play.”
Gabriel’s son, Christian, is a former first-team player and now the club’s president. He still lines up for a reserve team that swells with players who grew up in the club and moved past their playing prime. Like any place called home, it’s not easy to turn your back on Red Force.
“We’re pretty undersized, so we’re always trying to keep possession of the ball,” said Christian, who played at Gordon College in Northern Massachusetts, and helps manage the day-to-day operations of the club along with his younger brothers Adrian and Juan. “This is most important for us, to play to those strengths and not go out of our game.”
Christian works with his father, Gabriel, outside the club too: In a flower importing and distributing business. But even so, he doesn’t get tired of his old man. It’s a feeling shared by many of the club’s players. “He’s the most easy-going guy you’ll ever meet. I think that’s why everyone likes playing for him so much,” Christian said. “He’s really the reason the club exists. It’s his passion and his effort, and that’s why, even when players go off to college to play, they come back to Red Force after. It’s like coming home.”
A former youth player with Club Ferro Carril Oeste and Huracan in Argentina, Gabriel – who lined up for the Argentinian youth national teams before injury and immigration to the States ended his career – hasn’t just assembled a competitive side here in Miami. His considerations go much deeper. He’s careful about who he brings in and who he leaves out.
“Family is the word for what we are; these guys give everything and they don’t get paid for it,” said coach Gabriel, who was careful not to make Red Force’s club logo look too much like River Plate’s and draw scrutiny from the copyright cops. “I’m very careful about who I choose. I only take guys who are committed and who are genuinely nice guys. The other kind of guy, no matter how good, you can’t tell them anything because they already know it all!”
Mr. Nice Guys
Salinas, a compact and tricky striker who works days in sales, is one of those genuinely nice guys. He also happens to be jet-heeled and ruthless in front of goal. He was a member of the Red Force team that lost in the First Round of the 2013 Open Cup and returned in 2014 to beat Colorado Rovers before losing out to Laredo Heat of Texas. “We don’t know too much about the team we’re playing in the first round this year, but they’ll be a bunch of college kids and they’ll run all day,” said Salinas, about South Florida Surf of the Premier Developmental League (PDL). “We’ll have to make sure we keep the ball, because if we start chasing, we’ll be in trouble.”
A win in that game, the only one played on May 9 (and streamed live on ussoccer.com) would set up an all-Miami derby against professionals Miami FC, second in the NASL standings. A match-up against the side owned by Italian legend Paolo Maldini and coached by Alessandro Nesta would be a dream for Red Force. “A date with Miami FC would be the ultimate,” said Coach Vega, who sees the Open Cup as a way to get Red Force, his labor of love, a wider appreciation. “They know already, but I keep pounding it into their heads. You set up a date like that, and you never know what can happen.”
Red Force range in age from 18 to late 30s and like any team, they give each other a hard time. Ragging sessions revolve around the clubs the players support back in their home countries. “There’s a lot of joking in the team,” said Salinas, a passionate supporter of Atletico Nacional of Medellin. “The ribbing can be brutal. But you know how it is with rivalries – between clubs and the countries. It can get nasty, but it’s always in fun.”
And like any family, they come together when it counts. Their unity and understanding are most obvious on the pitch. “A lot of these guys have played together since they were kids and you can’t buy that chemistry and that feeling,” said Coach Vega with the kind of appreciation and care his players give right back to him. “To work as hard as they do, you have to love it. Off the pitch and on, we help each other.”