Cal men’s soccer alumnus Chris Ortega died unexpectedly Friday at the age of 29.
Ortega played with the Golden Bears from 2009 to 2011, occupying several positions within the organization and garnering a reputation with coaching staff as a consistent, versatile player. In 2010, Ortega was a starting player with the Bears when they became Pac-12 champions and went on to play in the Elite Eight regional championship, making them one of the most successful and significant teams in Cal soccer history.
“He was a wonderful young man. We as a coaching staff loved working with him and training him,” said Kevin Grimes, head coach of Cal men’s soccer. “He was really almost past his years for someone who was just a young man joining our program.”
Grimes knew Ortega as a player who could be counted on to be adaptable, filling different positions with the team throughout a given season, which made him particularly valuable as a player.
According to Grimes, Ortega often placed the good of the team above even his own individual achievement as a soccer player, sometimes sacrificing a position he preferred so that he could fill another one.
“He definitely was a guy that would just look at you as a coach and say, ‘Coach, if that’s what you need today, no problem. I’ll get it done,’ ” Grimes said. “He just knew that if it’s important to the team, then that’s it.”
Ortega was known by peers and coaches both for his competitive spirit on the field and for his effusive, fun-loving personality off the field.
Jacob Wilson, assistant coach of Cal men’s soccer and a former Cal soccer player who was on the team as a senior during Ortega’s freshman season, recalls Ortega as an “energetic, funny guy” one instant, but also someone who could switch on the competitive spirit of the game at a moment’s notice.
“He didn’t shy away from giving his opinion and wanting to contribute to the group,” Wilson said. “That’s the biggest thing I remember about Chris — his energy and his ability to connect to a lot of people in a positive way.”
In 2017, Ortega became a coach with the San Diego branch of the Barça Academy, the youth soccer program of FC Barcelona, according to executive director Manuel Morandi.
There, Ortega worked with children, some as young as 3 years old, and made an impact with his passionate but assertive approach to coaching — taking teams to international tournaments, including in Barcelona and the Dominican Republic.
“He just had it. The kids really looked up to him,” Morandi said. “He was very easy, very assertive, but at the same time very fun, and the kids just loved him.”
Ortega is survived by his father, Daniel, his mother, Karen, and his older brother, Danny.