Ex-Azkal Nate Burkey Finds His True Calling in La Union

The pandemic-induced lockdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise for former national player Nate Burkey, who is now spreading the gospel of football to La Union’s next generation.

Diehard Filipino football fans surely remember Nate Burkey.

Standing around 6’2”, Burkey was a tall striker for the Philippine men’s national football team in the first half of the 2010s, back when they were still collectively known as the Azkals and their fame had just skyrocketed.

Burkey’s national team debut was a memorable one. After trying out for new coach Hans Michael Weiss in early 2011, he got a call-up for the Azkals’ 2014 FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifiers home-and-away series against Sri Lanka.

He came in as a substitute in the first match held in Colombo and promptly scored to level the count, but in a strange twist he was taken out of the game shortly afterwards. But his goal had already made history.

“It was the first goal for the Philippines in over 10 years for a World Cup qualifier,” Burkey told The GAME in an exclusive interview.

“I came on as a sub, and oddly enough, I came off after I scored as a sub as well. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. We don’t need to get into all that. But yes, I came off as a sub. Phil Younghusband took a muscle injury towards the end of the first half, and I entered, and I scored early on in the second half to tie the game.

“We went home to Manila in a couple of days, and then we smashed them (by a score of 4-0). Then we made it to the second round. Yeah, that was my debut.”

Burkey went on to have a sporadic national team playing career, getting “around seven or eight call-ups” but collecting only four more official caps with the Azkals. He did play for commercial clubs like Kaya FC, Pachanga Diliman, Ceres FC, and Davao Aguilas in the defunct United Football League and later the Philippines Football League.

However, a knee injury in 2017 brought his professional playing career to an abrupt end. He did make a comeback of sorts with the national team after Thomas Dooley was briefly reappointed head coach and he took Burkey in as an assistant coach, but that stint lasted just a month.

“Thomas got the job and I ran into him and we spoke,” Burkey recalls. “And then he reached out to me offering me the position and I took it. It was just one camp in the Maldives. We had three matches, very little preparation, and that lasted for one month.”

Pandemic decisions

When the world shut down in March 2020, Burkey, his wife, and their young son were locked down in Manila. After a year, they were desperate for a change of scenery. They had previously visited La Union and its surfing scene before the pandemic hit and had always planned on returning until Covid disrupted everything.

But as restrictions began easing up in late 2021, the Burkeys decided the time was right to relocate.

“We ended up in San Juan, La Union during the pandemic when we were locked down in Manila for a year,” Burkey recalled. “We were desperate to get out, and our family had been to San Juan and it was the main destination that we had been to that was open.

“There was still a lot of paperwork, but we just decided on La Union because it was the most accessible and we had been there before and we thought we could at least get out of Manila. So we made a trip at the end of 2021 just to visit, and by March we migrated officially.

“So yeah, what brought us to La Union was basically the pandemic and just trying to escape Manila’s lockdown because our son was locked down in our village for the whole year. We wanted to get out.”

(Photo credit: Nate Burkey on Instagram)

The family was able to find an apartment to rent during their first two months in San Juan. The original plan was for them to move back to Manila once the pandemic was over, but soon they had fallen in love with the place and didn’t want to leave.

“We decided to stay because things were going well,” Burkey said. “Our son was happy and we were out of Manila and where we wanted to be, close to the water and being able to surf and raise our family back by the water.”

A ‘Eureka’ moment

San Juan is, of course, world-famous for its surfing scene. But it was during a walk along the beach one day when Burkey saw the potential to introduce football to the community.

Someone had organized a free beach football camp, and the turnout was very impressive.

“That was my first realization that football could really be sustained here,” he recalls. “And that was during the pandemic, right when we migrated here in 2021.”

As a province, La Union is hardly a hotbed for football talent. You’d be hard-pressed to find a suitable football pitch in most towns, San Juan included. In spite of — or perhaps because of — this, Burkey became inspired to set up a formal football ecosystem where the youth could learn the sport’s fundamentals.

He didn’t immediately set his plan into motion — the stint with Dooley and a quick trip to the United States to visit relatives and take a look at a possible coaching job there took up his time for most of 2022 — but once Burkey got all of that out of the way, he committed himself to establishing his program and setting it into motion.

In May 2023, the La Union Football Academy (LUFA) was born.

(Photo credit: La Union Football Academy on Instagram)

“The Academy was what really solidified staying (in San Juan) because then I had more purpose to be here,” he said. “We had always wanted to do the Academy and the timing just came at the right time in 2023 to where we could really situate ourselves here and commit to being here and devoting more time to coaching, which is what I always need when I’m coaching. I have to be able to commit my time into the place.

“So once that was settled, we decided to start the Academy, and we’re coming up on one year now. The idea for the Academy was really there in 2022. It’s just that the timing of it didn’t come to where it was the right time to do it.”

Growing pains

Today, Burkey and his staff train over 40 kids whose ages range from 2 to 15. It’s gratifying work, to be sure, but it’s not without its challenges.

Due to the absence of any nearby football pitch, the younger kids hold their football lessons in a covered basketball court. The older ones get to play on grass but on a makeshift pitch in an open field that a local school, Lorma Colleges, is letting them rent out.

The field isn’t exactly Camp Nou, but Burkey is grateful nonetheless that the school has provided them with a place to train.

“It is not a proper football field,” he said. “I don’t want to talk bad about their field because we’re thankful. We are very thankful for them letting us rent their field and use their space. But it is not a maintained football pitch. It’s very rocky. And it’s not maintained. They don’t water it. They do cut it when it grows.”

Lorma will be using the field for their own activities beginning May 6, so LUFA will be relocating soon.

“To be honest, I don’t know how long we won’t be able to use it,” Burkey admits. “We’ve made the most out of Lorma. And we’re thankful for them lending us their space and renting it to us. But that being said, I think we’ve outgrown it.

“It’s been a whole year of being on their field. And they’ve been good to us. Even though we’ve had our challenges, they’ve been very good to us. And we want to maintain a relationship with them looking forward.

“But we’re definitely ready for different venue alternatives. And I’m glad we have them in the works already because it’s challenging to have to always coordinate with a school and it’s all on their terms.”

The La Union Football Academy currently trains in an open field rented out by a local school. (Photo by Mike Eijansantos.)

One of these new venues is a covered futsal court in Taboc, a barangay in San Juan.

“The gym in Taboc is called Union Athletics. It’s going to be brand new. It’s opening really soon. It’s really exciting because it’s going to be pretty first class. And it’s pretty well designed and it’s big. It can hold a lot of people.”

Ultimately, though, Burkey envisions LUFA finally having its own training facility.

“Our plans are to develop our own fields in the third or fourth quarter this year, which will be a natural grass field that will be home to La Union Football Academy where we will also organize our own leagues and tournaments.”

Currently, LUFA is not affiliated with the Philippine Football Federation, the country’s governing body for football. It is, for all intents and purposes, simply a passion project for Burkey and like-minded individuals in La Union.

“There is no existing Regional Football Association in La Union at the moment and the RFAs are spread out throughout the country,” Burkey says. “There are 33 of them and they are the ones governing the sport in their regions and there is not one in La Union, which is why there is not a big (football) presence yet here in La Union. There’s one in Baguio, there’s one in Vigan but there isn’t any in La Union.”

Burkey says the new PFF top brass, led by PFF president John Gutierrez, is aware of what he is doing and has pledged support, but “we are not connected to the PFF or any RFA. We’re solely independent right now.”

Long-term goals

The community in San Juan has been tremendously supportive of LUFA, according to Burkey. In fact, many of his students are his friends’ children.

“The community has been awesome,” he said. “We’ve basically built a community as well.
I think the reason why is because everyone’s bought into the idea of what we’re trying to do and try to build and the fact that they’re deprived of the sport completely just gives them even more reason to want to commit.

“Those kids that are there, the majority of them have been committed for months already. I’ve had families already tell me that ‘We’re with you forever.’ The community has been very responsive and open to the ideas and then learning because football is new to basically everyone.”

That being said, Burkey has his eye on a much bigger goal.

“So our long-term goal is to grow the academy, obviously,” he said. “But number two is really to sustain it and develop and create our own ecosystem. My long-term goal would be to build a professional team here in La Union that this academy feeds into. That’s the long-term goal. The academy and a professional team are two separate things. But you cannot have a professional team without a proper academy.

“So I’m building an academy with that in mind. Whether we get there or not (we’ll see), but that’s my end goal. For the academy to one day, five, 10 years from now, hopefully sooner, have a professional team here that’s based here in La Unión, that the kids that I’m training now can make a livelihood and dream and prosper to be a part of.”

But baby steps first. LUFA has yet to organize any sort of football tournament, let alone play regular friendlies because Lorma doesn’t allow them to hold tournaments on the field. But there has been progress. In the last week of April, LUFA held its first friendly and joined its first tournament after being invited by the Pangasinan RFA through Burkey’s former teammate Roxy Dorlas.

“The best thing is, we’re in total control and we’re creating and developing our own talent. I’ve seen kids progress in one year’s time who are complete beginners into kids who right now would turn some heads.

“Our long-term goal is really to build that field. Number one. Because if we have our own field, we’re in total control of the development and we can train more and we can organize our own leagues and tournaments. And with our own field, we’ll be able to organize leagues and tournaments for youth and hopefully adults.

“So yeah, that’s pretty much the long-term goal. Build and develop the field and then ultimately build a professional team that the kids can aspire to be and take part of.”

Banner images from Mike Eijansantos and La Union Football Academy.

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