FOR L.A. SOCCER WRITER LUIS BUENO, THE INTERSECTION OF AMERICAN SOCCER AND HISPANIC GEOGRAPHY IS NOT NEW. IT IS IN HIS BLOOD.
“Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from his 1932 presidential nomination acceptance speech.
This could be soccer’s New Deal. Like President Roosevelt’s national program after the Great Depression, a move toward integrating soccer across American demographics might too bring relief, reform, and recovery to the
people players of the United States American soccer. But will it be able to triumph over the roadblocks?
While I have been watching the deal go down in Harlem the last few weeks, Culture of Soccer editor David Keyes has been in Southern California and returns to TIAS with part two of his west coast swing. We heard from Andrea Canalas a few weeks ago and now turn our attention to her partner in blog, Luis Bueno. From the coincidentally appropriate setting of Sueño MLS tryouts in Los Angeles, our correspondent sits down with Bueno to learn about his path to soccer journalism and discuss the cross cultural attention (and tension) that is budding throughout Mexican and American soccer.
David Keyes (DK): Can you give your brief bio and tell me how you ended up being a soccer reporter?
Luis Bueno (LB): I got out of high school and I had no concept of college. For two years, I didn’t really have a job or anything going on. I went back to school without any ambitions or anything. I went into reporting because I could always write and I liked sports. Then it went from there. I liked soccer. I picked it up when I was 10 or 11. I didn’t like it when I was little but I went to Mexico once during the playoffs and got hooked. I was about 9 then. And so, in my junior college (Riverside Community College) paper, they saw that I’m Hispanic so, you know, they put you on soccer. That’s how it started.
From there, my ability to speak Spanish and my knowledge of the international game opened doors for me. Even now, at newspapers there are one or two guys that fit that mold. In 1998, when I first started covering soccer at the San Bernadino County Sun, they put me on the Galaxy beat. I really hadn’t done anything then except for cover high school football. From that I went to MLS and I’ve been covering soccer ever since.
DK: So, you were born in LA?
LB: I was born in Orange [County], California, I grew up in Temecula, and then I went to high school and college in Riverside. I’ve been living there ever since.
DK: Since 1998, how have you transitioned to writing for the publications you write for now?
LB: I started writing for a website called Internetsoccer.com. It was a great site. We were one of the first of our kind to cover world soccer in the year 2000. When I started writing for it, I had already gone to the Press-Enterprise but I was in the Metro section. I was [writing for Internetsoccer.com] for free. But then, in 2001, I got lucky and they sent me down to Trinidad and Tobago for the U-17 World Championships.
I was like, “Wow, that’s great!” And they started paying so I had the chance to move down to Mexico. I left my job at the Press-Enterprise. I got married in 1999 and my wife was full of ambition too. She’s American so she was like, “Oh yeah, let’s move down to Mexico.” [At the time,] I was thinking they were going to send me to the World Cup in Korea/Japan. But they didn’t, the website went belly up and I was kind of left stranded. But I still ended up going to Japan for the World Cup on my own dime.
When I got back I thought I’d get away from it. I wasn’t really writing very much then but in early 2003 the Press-Enterprise wanted me to write a weekly soccer column on a freelance basis and I agreed to it. I had pursued some other options outside of journalism that didn’t really work out. In 2004, I covered the Galaxy for the Press-Enterprise on a freelance basis. And then when Chivas got here, that’s when it really took off for me. In 2005 I started writing for Sports Illustrated and then I picked up MLSnet.com. With Chivas around, I was able to cover more. Had they not come here, I don’t know if I’d still be doing it. I guess in a lot of ways Chivas has opened doors for me. With 2 teams [in LA], you’ve got a guaranteed 30 home games, plus playoffs, and friendlies.
DK: Do you think your background, being Hispanic, gives you a different perspective from other journalists?
LB: I think so. I can relate to how my parents grew up in their culture (they are from Mexico) and especially their love of soccer. I see how soccer can appear to press people who don’t know or understand the game. So I can see it from both sides. I think that’s helped out. If nothing else, my familiarity with the Mexican league and the national team [helped]. Long before I ever thought I’d be a journalist, I was watching games with my dad.
In 1986 we took a trip down to Mexico. My dad’s a big Chivas Guadalajara fan. I remember seeing how into the games he was. And then, of course, playoff time everybody’s watching the games so [my siblings and I] didn’t have any choice but to watch them. We liked the NFL, baseball, the Lakers, but we didn’t really pay much attention to soccer until then. We came back and started playing a little bit and from there the love grew.
DK: What would you say is the place of soccer in LA? I’m curious with LA being as diverse as it is, how big do you think soccer is in this area?
LB: Huge, it’s huge. It’s kind of strange in that teams like the Lakers and the Dodgers … Chivas Guadalajara probably has as many fans as they do here in LA.
I’ll tell you a story. In 2003, I went into teaching, I got a job teaching 5th grade in south LA. It was a hard, tough neighborhood. Once, we went on a field trip and just to see what their reaction would be, I wore a Club America hat – not that I’m an America fan. I just figured, “Let’s see what happens.” I had so many little kids come up to me and say, “Chivas, Chivas, Chivas.” I hardly had anyone say, “Club America.” All the kids in my class, other classes, just random people all said, “Chivas, Chivas, Chivas.” Of course, I knew then that soccer was popular, but it hit me how much of a response a little symbol could elicit from people.
It’s not true that people don’t care about soccer in LA. Because people speak a different language, they don’t read the LA Times, they don’t watch ESPN. The assumption is that it’s just Lakers and Dodgers in LA. But it’s not like that at all. There are communities here that are mostly Hispanic and [soccer] is their passion.
DK: Do you think most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in this area are more interested in Mexican or American soccer?
LB: I have some friends who are Mexican-Americans and don’t follow soccer at all. They just follow the Raiders, NFL, and other American sports. But of the ones that follow soccer, I think the majority of them say the Mexican league is their favorite league. I don’t know where MLS would fall after that. I’ve been talking with people out here at Sueño MLS and I ask them if they follow Chivas USA. They tell me, “Oh yeah, the last couple of years I’ve been starting to watching MLS.” So it’s not something they’ve grasped onto right away but it seems that they’re starting to pay a little more attention. I don’t know what to attribute that to, Blanco’s arrival, Chivas USA’s presence here…
DK: Watching games on TV, I’ve seen some fans recently wear, say, a Mexican jersey and a USA scarf. That’s something I never saw before. Do you think there is any kind of shift in loyalties among Hispanic fans?
LB: I think 10 years ago, I would have said most Mexican-American fans root for the Mexican national team. But I think that’s changing. I think there are now more Mexican-Americans who support the US than before. It just depends on the person really. I have cousins, two of them root for Mexico and two of them root for the US. It’s just kind of split. I think it depends on the family and how much their dad or brothers or uncles follow soccer and where their loyalties lie. I think the number of US fans is going to keep growing.
But I think one problem for the US national team is that they don’t have any Mexican-American players.
DK: Jonathan Bornstein! But you’d never know that hearing his last name.
LB: No, you wouldn’t. Last year I think there were 3 [Mexican-American] players and they had more than 50 players on the US national team. The only ones who had any Mexican descent were Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein and Herculez Gomez. Gomez was more filler than anything, Bocanegra and Bornstein are solid first-choice players. So I think to capture that market, especially with young kids who are just starting to become fans, I think if they had some guys named Hernandez or Suarez, they might relate to them more.
DK: Why do you think it is the case that in a country with 13% percent of the population being Hispanic, there have been so few Hispanic players in the US national team?
LB: I think part of it is finances. I think the typical Mexican-American kid lives in a working class neighborhood, like Bell Gardens, where we are right now. It’s a pretty tough neighborhood and I think sometimes your friends or gangs might get in the way. But then there’s also [the fact that] you have to work, you have to earn money.
Huntington Park is another example of a largely Hispanic (95%) neighborhood in the Los Angeles area. photo by Luis’ brother, Danny Bueno, who also writes occasionally for MLSnet.com.
I have a cousin who’s pretty good at soccer, I think he’s 15. I’m thinking, “Alright, is he going to have the chance to go to college?” Probably not. I’m just being honest. He plays on club teams right now. They’re not the big club teams that the Sacha Kljestans played for and the Bornsteins and the Benny Feilhabers. Those guys had the opportunities to play on those teams whereas someone like my cousin doesn’t. Maybe he plays high school and then that’s it. There are a lot of players like that, who for financial reasons just can’t afford it.
I think US Soccer in the past hasn’t taken it that seriously. I know I heard Steve Sampson once on a conference call when he was coach of the Galaxy say something like, “Oh, all Mexican-Americans support Mexico.” If that’s the attitude of the former US national team coach… that’s not to say Sampson hasn’t done a lot, he actually has.
DK: He actually speaks Spanish, too.
LB: Yeah, if any American coach knows about Hispanics, it’s him. Yet it kind of surprised me. Why would he say that? Does US Soccer feel like that entirely? Does Bruce Arena? Bob Bradley? Do they see the importance of it or are they just saying, “Well, we’re just missing this whole wealth of talent.” We don’t know. There could be the next Landon out here, the next Altidore. We don’t know since it’s something that’s never really been explored.
DK: How important a step do you think the hiring of Wilmer Cabrera as the U-17 coach is? It seems like US Soccer perhaps is starting to make some moves. How important do you think those moves might be?
LB: I think with Sunil Gulati coming in, he’s brought a fresh perspective to the game and to the federation. I think Cabrera’s hiring spoke to that. They could have gone with the same Hackworth/Ellinger-type mold, but they chose to go with somebody outside. I think that’s good because someone like Cabrera can go to parents and speak with them in their language and they might feel more open to letting their child go to Brandenton (U17 Residency Program) or whatever the case might be. And I think Cabrera won’t take the stance, “Well, they just root for their own country.”
DK: You said that in the past few years you’ve seen Hispanic fans paying more attention to MLS. In what ways do you think MLS has been successful in trying to court Hispanic fans?
LB: I think Blanco really accelerated whatever progress they were making. I was dead wrong on him. I thought he’d be like Luis Hernandez. It would be like, Hernandez: good player, very popular, comes here and one game they had 30,000 people and then it went back down to whatever it was before. He didn’t really have any lasting effect whatsoever. I saw Blanco the same way. Here’s a guy, he’s still got some game left, he’s a little older, but he could potentially come here and [only] draw one big crowd. But I was wrong. The guy’s an idol and I think he grabbed people’s attention. They followed him and now they’re following [MLS]. I saw during Interliga a fan wearing one of those jerseys that’s half and half. One of them was Mexico and one was the Chicago Fire.
DK: When I was down in Mexico I saw tons of Chicago Fire shirts. It was bizarre.
LB: It’s very strange to see that. You expect Mexican fans out here wearing America, Chivas, Pumas, whatever. But now you throw in the Fire and, if nothing else, they’re watching Fire games. If nothing else, they’re following Blanco. I think that’s what a lot of people need, just to watch the game and leave any preconceived notions behind. No one is saying MLS is on par with Mexico, at least I’m not. But MLS is quality, and I think Blanco gives people a reason to watch it. Maybe they’ll think, “Oh, this isn’t too bad.” I think there’s still a lot of progress to be made, but I think Blanco really took things to the next level.
DK: Are there structural things that MLS is doing in addition to bringing in players like Blanco to reach out to Hispanic fans?
LB: I think of the youth academy that Chivas has set up. I think if they go out and target Hispanic communities. That’s an area where they could pull in fans, not just for the short term but for the long term. I think they need to target more Mexican-Americans than Mexicans.
I always use the comparison of my dad. My dad’s a big Chivas Guadalajara fan, but I don’t know that he’s ever watched a Chivas USA game. When I told him that they signed Claudio Suarez, he was like, “Oh, this is about his speed. He couldn’t play down in Mexico any more so he came up here.” I think that’s a common perception. But if you get American-born children of Mexican parents who follow Chivas or whatever club, I think those are the ones who are more apt to watch MLS games. I’m not saying they need to abandon the Mexican-born fans, but they’re not going to stop watching their teams, they’re not going to stop supporting their clubs.
If I move to Japan, I’m not going to follow the Japanese baseball league. I’m a Dodgers fan and I love baseball, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to follow the Yomiuri Giants. Well, I definitely wouldn’t watch the Giants! So, you can’t just say, “It’s soccer so [Hispanics] will watch.” You’ve got to give them more credit than that. And I think in the past they didn’t. But I think it’s going in the right direction.
It would nice if there were more Hispanic players drafted. I don’t know what the breakdown was this year, but in the 2007 draft … Willie Sims from New England might have been the only Hispanic player drafted. That’s kind of incredible. How does that happen? I think it also speaks to the system where the clubs get their players from. They rely on college a lot. A 21, 22 year old-guy is pretty young in MLS, but in other leagues at 22, if you haven’t broken the first team, you’re not going to.
DK: I know MLS is really making a move to try to improve teams’ youth programs, giving them rights to the local players they develop. Do you think for teams LA, for example, that will give them the potential to bring in more Hispanic players?
LB: I think it does. Obviously, we’re out here at Sueño MLS and most of these won’t get called back. But I think if they start casting the net at a younger age, go for the 13, 14, 15 year-olds, at least have them on their radar … it’s never been done before on the scale that Chivas is doing it. You can’t say that it can’t be successful. Give it 5, 10 years, see what happens, see what kind of players are produced.
But I think it’s mostly financial. The clubs have to consider that. It takes work, combing local fields for the next hidden talent. It’s hard and that’s why I think they go to more established soccer leagues like California South. A lot of the kids there are Anglos, whites. It’s easier there because it’s more established. So the Galaxy has a scout, they’re going to go there because that’s how it’s always been done.
DK: I know with adults, there are many Hispanic leagues. Are there similar, “unofficial” leagues in which young Hispanic kids are playing?
LB: There are those leagues out here. I was talking with Sigi Schmid and he knows this area like the back of his hand. But it’s difficult for him, a guy who doesn’t speak Spanish. The officials in most leagues do and maybe they don’t speak English that well or at all. Most of the kids there speak Spanish. Maybe it’s kind of scared MLS away because they don’t know what to expect there.
DK: When I spoke with Eddie Carvacho, the Columbus Crew Director of Hispanic Development, he told me that they don’t want fans to give up their loyalty to Chivas, America, or whomever, but they want them to have a second love. But Mexican soccer is, in many cases, easier to watch on TV than MLS. How should MLS deal with the fact that so many fans can watch Mexican league so easily? How should MLS position itself in terms of trying to reach those fans?
LB: I think having a game on Sundays on Telefutura has really helped. [MLS] had little presence before last year. Now, fans watching the Pumas game at 10:00 AM might be more apt to leave it there for the noon Chivas vs. Dallas game. Versus the Fox Soccer Channel game of the week, they may not get FSC or go out of their way to watch games on FSC.
I think MLS needs to develop more relationships with local news stations to get their highlights on there. Having highlights on Contacto Deportivo has helped. A year ago they weren’t showing anything and so in a lot of ways it’s “out of sight out of mind” for the Mexican soccer fan. It’s strange when you think you can watch every single Mexican soccer game here, most without any problems whatsoever. You can spend all day Saturday from 3:00 to 9:00 watching games, flipping back and forth. And then you can do it again on Sunday. It’s amazing when you think about it but that just goes to show the market that there is out there for soccer.
DK: One last question. It seems like there’s the potential danger in LA of Chivas becoming the “Hispanic” team and the Galaxy becoming the “white” team. It’s something I’ve been observing from afar and I worry about it. I’m curious what your take is.
LB: I definitely see that happening. In fact, I think you’ll see that go to the next level this year because of the rivalry between the teams, especially the fan clubs. At the end of last year, there was a kind-of-ugly incident with Chivas USA fans and the Riot Squad, the Galaxy’s main supporters group. A lot of the Riot Squad felt like they were targeted unjustly and some of them had their scarves stolen. I know those guys; they’re your typical hardcore fan and I’m hoping they don’t plan any sort of retaliation for the first clásico this year. If they do, that could drive a wedge. There are a lot of Latinos in the Riot Squad and Latinos who support the Galaxy, but I think the fan rivalries could kind of separate people. (editor’s note: it is not clear whether or not race played a role in this incident. Follow the MLSU link above and read the comments section.)
But also, when you look at the players, there’s Carlos Ruiz and, um, (laughs). It’s kind of funny to think about it. In LA, how is that possible? I talked to Mauricio Cienfuegos last year when they didn’t have a single Hispanic player on the roster. It seems sad that the Galaxy have gotten away from that. A lot of Galaxy fans’ answer to that is, “Well, they’re not just going to go out and get a player from El Salvador just because there are Salvadorans in LA.” But I think that’s oversimplifying it. Soccer clubs traditionally represent their area, whether it’s Chivas Guadalajara having players from Guadalajara and Mexico City doing the same, having Blanco.
The perception is really there, though, that the Galaxy is the “white” team. I would hope that’s not really how it goes. But if you’re not following soccer and now you’ve got Beckham and he kind of grabs your attention, and now you see Landon and he’s American, you’re going to gravitate towards that team maybe because of Landon. Chivas is not going to capture your attention as easily. I could see where that fight could evolve. Maybe that fight between supporters is the start of it.
DK: Let’s hope it isn’t. But I think you’re right with the Galaxy having so few Hispanic players. Chivas has gone back on their hope to have only Mexican and Mexican-American players, but that is part of their identity. I worry because I don’t want to see the teams split the city that way.
LB: Before, it was a little like that in baseball with the Angels. They didn’t have any Hispanic players and they’re playing in Santa Ana and Santa Ana is a lot different than other cities in Orange County, because it is heavily populated by Mexicans. A lot of my family lives in Santa Ana. And yet, the Angels didn’t have a single Hispanic player. But that changed because they got Arte Moreno (the first Hispanic to own a major sports team in the United States) as the owner. He went out and got big names like Vladimir Guerrero and also lesser-tier names like Kelvim Escobar and guys like that. They’re not stars but they’re Latinos, they’re Hispanic, they have Hispanic surnames, they speak Spanish, they develop rapport with the local media, they’re on Univision, and now they’re showing highlights because, “Oh look, Bartolo Colon’s pitching and Vladimir Guerrero hit a home run.”
The Dodgers always had that presence with Fernando Valenzuela, but the Angels had Jim Edmonds, J.T. Snow, all these white guys. It was like, “Wait, you guys are right by Santa Ana!” But that changed. I think that was important to Arte Moreno. So, yeah, I think if baseball can take that approach, I think the Galaxy should be more aware of that.
banner photo of MLS jerseys for sale in a sporting goods store in Oaxaca, Mexico by David Keyes