Former Pima Community College NJCAA All-American midfielder, San Diego State University standout, professional soccer player, and current Aztec assistant soccer coach, AJ Valenzuela has come full circle in the game of soccer.
He has accomplished more in the game of soccer than most, but Valenzuela’s driving factor for all that he does revolves around his daughter, who came into his life just as his soccer career began to take off.
“It’s great, but I can’t say that it wasn’t difficult just with everything that was going on,” Valenzuela said. “But it was great, and I can’t think twice.”
AJ, who has been playing soccer since he was five years old, has been coached by some of the most highly renowned coaches in Tucson.
Valenzuela played youth soccer with the Tucson Soccer Academy, and was coached by former professional soccer player Jeff Rogers, and Pima County Sports Hall of Fame inductees Wolfgang Weber and Dave Cosgrove.
He was coached by Dave Hunter and Sal Baldenegro on the varsity soccer team at Desert View High School, and he helped the school reach the state tournament for the first time in 20 years.
When AJ graduated from high school he signed with Pima where he was reunited with Cosgrove, who has been the Aztecs head coach since 1998, and is the school’s all-time leader in wins including the 2018 NJCAA Division I National Championship. In AJ’s sophomore season at Pima, he was named an NJCAA and United Soccer Coaches First-Team All-American, the ACCAC/Region I Player of the Year, and helped lead the Aztecs to a third-place finish at the NJCAA Division I Tournament.
“Playing here at Pima, it was great”, said Valenzuela. “My freshman year was a great year, I was able to do a lot, my second year was probably my best year of both years.
“I was able to get player of the year and I just thank Dave (Cosgrove) and Javi (Pima assistant coach Javier Holguin), for giving me that chance, because without them I wouldn’t have gotten all these awards.”
After his sophomore season at Pima, AJ transferred to San Diego State University, a Division I school that participates in the Pac-12 for men’s soccer. He quickly recognized the difference in the level of competition between Division I and junior college soccer.
“When you’re coming up the ranks and play at a JUCO level, and then when you’re trying to transfer somewhere else, you’re trying to go to the top division, and San Diego State was one of those schools,” Valenzuela said. “ I was playing in the Pac-12, playing against some of the greatest teams, playing against Stanford, UCLA, and all these great schools.
“I was blessed to be able to play at a college of that level.”
After college, Valenzuela went on to play for Cosgrove a third time at FC Tucson in USL League Two, helping the team reach the Western Conference Final before heading to Eugene, Ore., to play for Lane United for a season.
In 2020, Valenzuela came back to Tucson and signed with FC Tucson, who had recently been elevated to USL League One, and was coached by former University of Arizona assistant and associate head coach John Galas.
“I can’t thank John Galas enough for signing me.” said Valenzuela. “To be able to play professionally, it’s every kid’s dream, and I was able to do that.”
Following his release from FC Tucson after one season, it comes as no surprise that AJ is now back alongside Cosgrove; this time on the sidelines as an assistant coach at Pima. The Aztecs were the No. 1 ranked team in the NJCAA Division II poll for a majority of the season, and are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“I just want to be able to give back to the community,” said Valenzuela. “I’ve known most of these kids since they were younger when I was playing for the Tucson Academy team.
“They respect me, and they will let me show them what I see, and if they need help, they ask me for it.”
After the season, Valenzuela will be travelling to Detroit, Mich., where he has been invited to try out for the Michigan Stars who play in the National Independent Soccer Association.
As Valenzuela’s soccer career continues to take him around the country, he still considers being a father his greatest achievement in life.
“My daughter is five years old now, and it just made me have a whole different life perspective,” Valenzuela said. “Now everything that I do, I do it for her so that she can have a great future.”
The future holds many possibilities for Valenzuela as he embarks on the next chapter of his life which will most certainly revolve around his two passions: caring for his daughter, and the game of soccer.
The No. 2 ranked Aztecs (7-1) will host No. 6 ranked Yavapai College (7-1-1) at the West Campus Aztec Soccer Field at the Chapman Auto Sports Complex on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.