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Meet Luis Rocha: Canada's Newest Futsal Star

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After quietly flying under the radar for the past few seasons, the diminutive forward had a breakout year in 2019 in which he has won a lot of hardware and accolades.

 

Though he was born on the fourth of July, Luis Rocha is a proud Luso-Canadian.

Growing up in the working class region of West-Central Toronto, Rocha grew up in a predominantly Portuguese / Italian community. Like many Portuguese immigrants new to Canada, his parents worked tough, often thankless, labour jobs. His father Luis Pacheco Rocha, a skilled roofer, and his mother Maria, cleaned. Both parents wanted a better life in Canada and left their home in the Azores, a beautiful Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic often listed in travel magazines as a top tourist destination. Maria hailed from the island of Sao Jorge, his father from Terceira.

They welcomed Luis into the world at a downtown Toronto hospital in 1995. Although christened as a Catholic, Luis was baptized by soccer at an early age, starting with the Toronto Eagles, now known as SC Toronto, at the age of five. The club colours were blue and white, just like the Azorean flag. He played the duration of his youth soccer career with the club until 18, while also playing for his local high school, Bishop Marrocco.

His introduction to futsal came early on in his teens, playing in a local Hispanic league, Atletico Ecuador, at Nelson Boylen Collegiate, known throughout the city for its aggressive games, skillful players, and post-game porchetta sandwiches that local residents in the know would go to buy even without having any involvement with the sport.

Like many good Canadian kids, Luis enjoyed spending his time with friends, playing video games, and watching movies. But it wasn’t until he was 15 that Luis truly began to heavily lean on sports as an outlet. That's when he learned that his father was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“It was devastating news when we found out. Whenever I went home is when I constantly thought and worried about it. So I turned to soccer and futsal because when you play you just forget about what happens off the pitch, you just kick it with your team, your friends. That’s honestly what gave me the strength to deal with that really difficult time.”

Fortunately Luis Sr's cancer went into remission but that early realization of mortality gave Rocha the necessary motivation to seize the playing opportunities that were slowly starting to come his way.

He was asked to join Toronto Tecnico, a small club based in the Toronto borough of North York that punched above their weight against many of the larger clubs with even larger budgets. It was here that he first started playing under Lorenzo Redwood, who would eventually go on to become an Assistant Coach with the Canadian National Futsal Team.

After playing in numerous tournaments as well as the Toronto Futsal League, the young, baby-faced Rocha signed with newly established Toronto United for the 2016 season after Redwood was named its first ever head coach. He was one of the youngest players on the team. Despite having a decent 2015/16 campaign, Luis suffered a broken leg that forced him to miss both the Futsal Canada and Canada Soccer Nationals that spring. The club went on to win both titles.

When Redwood moved on to local rivals Toronto Idolo (pronounced 'ee-doh-low') Rocha followed suit. And it was here that his trajectory really skyrocketed.

“I followed Lorenzo to Toronto Idolo as he believed in me and gave me the opportunities I needed to succeed. I also happened to know a few of the guys on the team and how talented they were. Some of them were a few years older and I would watch them play after my games were finished. I thought this could turn into something really fun.”

His intuition was right.

In 2018 and 2019, Idolo went on to win back-to-back Canada Soccer Futsal Championships, the first club to ever achieve the feat.

At the 2019 edition, the team’s bonafide star, Jacob Orellana, who was the 2018 Canada Soccer Futsal Player of the Year, was ruled out with a knee injury. It was a big blow to the club and Rocha was tasked with carrying some of the load.

He did that and then some.

Rocha finished the tournament with an impressive 11 goals from five matches, earning the Golden Boot for top scorer, and notched the winning penalty against Sporting Montreal in the championship match. He was named tournament MVP.

“When Jacob got injured, I had to step up big time and try to fill his enormous shoes as he’s such a huge part of our team. I just kind of dug down deep and followed our game plan. When it came down to that final penalty, I had to take an extra deep breath as there was a lot of pressure. But I really wanted to put the game away and win another title for us. It was the sweetest victory I’ve ever had.”

Although he was called up for a pair of friendlies vs Costa Rica in 2018, Canada's only matches since 2016, it was his sterling performance at this year’s nationals that really caught the eye of Canadian National Team Coach, Kyt Selaidopoulos.

“In 2018 when I got called up, I didn’t think I was going to play much and I didn’t. But I guess I did what I was asked to do well enough, I played my role. Then this year I got the email to join the camp in Montreal. It was an overwhelming experience, very high intensity and you had to fight for every ball. Now, it feels like everything is coming together now.”

Then came the announcement last week that Rocha would be named Canada Soccer's Futsal Player of the Year. The soft-spoken, working class kid couldn't believe it.

“I was shocked when I won the award and the reaction from it. Kyt called to tell me. I wasn’t expecting it at all. When he told me, I was silent and he actually had to ask if I was still on the line cause I was in such shock that I couldn't say anything. My dad is actually still in shock but is very happy about it and that means a lot to me. My mother gave me a big kiss and told me she was very proud. It has just been incredible, the amount of support I have received is just overwhelming.”

The award came just days before Canada’s final camp in Laval, where, unsurprisingly, Luis was called upon again.

Unlike national soccer team players, futsal players don’t earn a salary playing. His hard work ethic on the court is equally matched by his work off of it. To pay the bills Rocha works at FreshCo, a grocery chain owned by Sobey’s, and to earn some extra scratch, he puts up drywall on the weekends. The long hours spent take a lot of energy but it's all worthwhile come Saturday nights when he plays league matches with his club.

“Playing with Idolo is like a family. Every time I put on the jersey it feels like I belong. Now, it’s the same feeling with the Canadian jersey. You really just have to enjoy it and to take pride in it. You want to put your club on the map and I feel we have done that. Now I want to help put my country on the international futsal map. I want to make the World Cup so badly. It’s also really great to have so many of my club teammates, and my head coach with me at the national team camps as well because I can share this journey with them too.”

2019 was truly a year where Rocha has come into his own. But if he continues putting in strong performances at both club and national levels then 2020 could be the year the quiet kid from Toronto emerges as a leader for Canada as they march on the road to Lithuania in the quest to reach their first World Cup appearance in over 30 years.