years in the making, a book at the right time
“Sometimes players say things to get in our heads, call us short, brown. This guy said, ‘You ain’t nothing to me, man. You’re only to my waist!’ I thought, ‘I’ll take you, man.’ They say, “Stupid Mexicans, go home, go back to Mexico.” If they do that then one or two times in the half I don’t go for the ball but go for them.” -Angel
The following is the second excerpt taken from Steve Wilson’s The Boys From Little Mexico.
Copyright 2010. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. Read the introduction here. Buy the book here.
The Woodburn Bulldogs emerged from their bus and strolled toward Wilsonville’s field. Their second preseason opponent, the Wilsonville Wildcats, represented a new community best known for a giant discount electronics store. Because of the town’s fast growth, the Wildcats was moving up a division. The Wilsonville team viewed the game against Woodburn as a test of their abilities against a new, higher level of competition.
The week before, the Bulldogs had beaten a bunch of big white kids from West Salem 1-0, and they had played three halves against three different opponents in a jamboree on a skinny field in the foothills of Mt. Hood, winning or tying each game without allowing a single goal. During the first one of these Octavio scored early on a PK, a sharp, accurate kick to the right side of the net that inspired Coach Flannigan to announce, “Last year is officially done now. It is officially behind us. We can let Lakeridge go.”
Flannigan had also noted Brandon’s play at left wing. Brandon, blonde and pale-skinned, was the only white kid to make the varsity team, having moved up from JV for the jamboree. Flannigan knew him from the basketball court, where Brandon played point guard. The morning of the Wilsonville game, Flannigan’s ideas of a two pronged wing attack—Tony on one side and Brandon on the other—were upset when Brandon announced he was quitting.
The coach asked him why, was he having trouble making friends? Brandon said no, he had friends on the team, he just wanted to concentrate on basketball. He wasn’t having fun playing soccer.
Flannigan suggested that he might be bored because he had only played one game before moving up from JV. Nobody likes practice, Coach Flannigan suggested, why not stick around and play a couple of games before you decide.
But Brandon had said no, he wanted to quit. Flannigan wondered about this. Over the years the teams had becoming increasing Latino-dominated, and he suspected that some of the white kids at the school felt intimidated or left out, and so didn’t try out for the team. There was another white kid in JV—a tall boy named Kevin whose brother had played for the Bulldogs a couple years ago. Now Kevin would be the only Anglo on any of the teams.
As the Bulldogs walked toward the Wilsonville field, Flannigan was still trying to figure out who to put in at left wing. One possibility was Jovanny, a sharp-shooting freshman who had impressed him at tryouts but who had missed some practices. The last thing Flannigan needed was another kid without discipline.
The team walked in front of him, identical black backpacks on their shoulders, and two fair-haired boys about 15 years old, dressed in their white home uniforms, stopped to watch. The two boys didn’t move for a moment, then one of them spoke without turning to his friend, his eyes still focused on the Woodburn players.
“Jesus!” he said. “Did you see how many Mexicans they’ve got?”
It wasn’t a slur, but a gasp of astonishment and respect. Despite the negative characteristics some people ascribe to Hispanic teenage boys—violent, untrustworthy, lazy, stupid, drug abusers, illegal residents—one positive trait associated with them is skill with a soccer ball. Across Oregon’s Willamette Valley, fair-haired boys have learned this through years of playing soccer against kids from Woodburn, some of them, like Octavio, born in Mexico, and some of them, like Carlos, born in the United States
The discrepancy in skill between young Hispanic and young Anglo soccer players seems to be most pronounced in elementary and middle school years, when the extra hours of practice Hispanic kids get by playing informal games with friends and family creates sometimes comical mismatches. Often the boys from towns like Woodburn have so much more control over the ball, and so much better footwork, that the scores of young Hispanic club teams can be 12-0 over their Anglo rivals.
Everardo Castro, who graduated from Woodburn High in 1986, recalled coaching his nephew’s club team, one of the first all-Hispanic club soccer teams in the state. For several years his team dominated the state tournaments, their closest competition being another all-Hispanic team from another Willamette Valley town. “We’d go to a tournament,” Castro said, “and it would always end up with us two at the finals. One of us would win and then the other would win.”
Although such lopsided success ebbs by the late high school years, Hispanic soccer players in a mostly-white state like Oregon are assumed to have rare and magical qualities. When Omar Mendoza coached club soccer, he would regularly receive phone calls from other coaches who wanted his help locating Latino players.
“They’d always say, give me some guys from Woodburn—they think all of them are so good. I’d say, ‘I’m not an employment agency.’”
With so much emphasis on Latino soccer skills at the high school level, it would seem natural that colleges would also be full of Latino players, but that hasn’t happened, probably because such a small percentage of Latino high school students go on to college. Even fewer Hispanic names are seen on the jerseys worn by professional soccer players in the United States, at either the minor or major league level. What happens between elementary school and high school? Why don’t Latino soccer players continue to dominate at all age levels? Why isn’t American Major League Soccer (MLS) full of Arellanos and Romeros?
The path from youth prodigy to professional soccer player generally takes two different directions, depending on what country you live in. In soccer-focused parts of the world, such as Latin America, young, skilled athletes are scouted by Division 1 teams, which trawl for kids in impoverished rural areas, much in the way that prep schools in the U.S. scout talented players from the basketball courts of black neighborhoods. In countries from Sweden to Argentina, these young athletes, generally around 13 or 14, begin to go to “soccer school”, the first step towards making it in the big leagues.
Kids work their way through age-specific teams then into the minor leagues of professional soccer until eventually rising to the highest level of competition in their own country. If they are really special players, they leave their home country to play in one of the world’s elite leagues in England, Spain, Italy, or Germany. The players on teams in these countries are an international smorgasbord of talent. FC Barcelona, one of the world’s most popular and successful teams, features players from ten countries, as far apart as Uruguay and Belarus.
In the United States, on the other hand, high-school-aged standouts are scouted by college coaches during private club tournaments, soccer championships featuring the best non high-school teams in the country. The best club players, if they also have good enough grades, go on to play for university teams, and from there, to the American professional leagues or even to play overseas. In other words, in the U.S., guys who make it to the big leagues tend to come from money, while in the rest of the world, they don’t.
Aware that a large number of America’s Latino immigrants and children of immigrants are skilled soccer players, and aware that these young men rarely make it to college, critics of MLS have for years complained that the league does little to tap into the vast resource of talented young athletes not playing for club or university teams. Underneath what these critics say is an unspoken theme: Professional soccer has failed to acknowledge the changing demographics of the United States.
In an interview on ThisIsAmericanSoccer.com, Sports Illustrated soccer writer Luis Bueno said that he felt MLS clubs need to work harder to find Mexican-American athletes because Latinos tend to play in less-established, less wealthy leagues.
“I have a cousin who’s pretty good at soccer, I think he’s 15,” Bueno said. “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 [Jonathan] 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.”
Bueno, like other MLS critics, wonders if the coaches of MLS and U.S. National teams realize how much talent may be in their own backyard.
“We don’t know,” he said. “There could be the next Landon [Donovan] out here, the next [Jozy] Altidore. We don’t know since it’s something that’s never really been explored.”
In response to this type of criticism, MLS in 2007 launched a televised player search with a reality format, called Sueño MLS, or MLS Dream. While Sueño MLS was not open exclusively to Latino athletes, it was clearly aimed at them and at their television-viewing peers. Sueño MLS was shown only on Spanish-language television, running as a segment on Univision’s popular Republica Deportiva show. In the program’s debut year, Chivas USA, MLS’s version of the wildly popular Guadalajara, Mexico, team, offered a slot on its roster to the best player out of two thousand applicants. Over several weeks, the contenders were narrowed down to one: Jorge Flores, a seventeen-year-old kid from Anaheim, California.
Born in the United States, Flores moved to Guanajuato, Mexico, with his mother when he was a year old. Flores remained there while his mother moved back to Anaheim and remarried. Jorge rejoined her as a teenager, moving into a strange home with a new stepfather in a country whose language he didn’t understand. His skill at soccer helped him to make friends, and by the time he graduated he was Anaheim High School’s MVP and team captain.
Flores hadn’t heard of the Sueño tryout, and when his uncle signed him up, he didn’t even make the initial list of two thousand. Instead, his name was put on the waiting list, one of four thousand additional young men who hoped for a last-minute phone call to come to the group tryout.
He got one.
After winning the competition by impressing coaches with his skills, determination, and shot-making ability, Flores was signed to Chivas USA’s under-19 squad, then to the regular squad soon after. In the 2008 season, coming off the bench half the season and starting the other half, Flores notched three goals for his new team. He also was selected to play on the US National Under-20 team. Since then, Sueño MLS has tapped three other winners, two in 2008 and one in 2009, all of them Hispanic.
Sueño’s apparent success both in attracting applicants and finding quality players is not just a feel-good story for MLS to trot out for journalists. It’s a necessary part of keeping the league alive, for although America has its white, college-educated soccer fans, their numbers pale when compared to the number of Latino fans.
In 2007, the U.S. national team played the Mexican national team in the Gold Cup Final, an international tournament pitting teams from North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America against each other. The final was held in Chicago’s Soldier Field to a sold out crowd, so many of them supporters of the Mexican team that ESPN reported “almost the entire crowd of 60,000 was wearing green.” 2.8 million households tuned in to the Spanish-language broadcast of the U.S.A. versus Mexico Gold Cup Final, making it not only the third-most viewed Spanish-language broadcast to that date, but outdelivering all other broadcasts for the same time slot in Spanish or English. In comparison, the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals for Major League Hockey was viewed in 2 million households. In other words, although Latinos are still a numerical minority in this country, soccer is watched by such a large Latino audience that they represent a gold mine to any professional soccer league or advertiser.
And yet, until recently, MLS has clung to the outdated idea that commercial soccer success will be driven from white, upper-class, educated fans, not the blue-collar ones who support the Almighty triad of baseball-football-basketball. In 2002, the L.A. Galaxy, playing in a city about 50 percent Hispanic, did not feature a single Mexican player. In 2006, Houston, a town with the third-largest Mexican-American population in the country, named their MLS team Houston 1836, based on the year of Houston’s founding. But 1836 is also the year Texas gained independence from Mexico after a bloody war, and the name rankled many of the city’s citizens of Mexican descent. The team quickly changed its name to the Houston Dynamo.
During the past few years, however, MLS seems to be getting the message. The league has started summertime soccer programs and tournaments aimed at Latino kids. MLS Futbolito, a 4 v 4 tournament, travels the country playing in MLS stadiums, and is broadcast on Univision. A brand new program called Distinguished Hispanics aims to recognize Hispanic community leaders across the country, no doubt hoping they will encourage their flock to watch their local MLS team. In addition, through the Designated Player Rule, MLS now allows each team to bring in one international star whose salary will not affect the team’s salary cap.
The Designated Player Rule, which began in 2007, has so far brought in [at the time of this book’s printing] six international stars—two of them European, four of them Latin American. In its first year, the rule forced soccer briefly into the consciousness of average Americans due to the L.A. Galaxy’s signing of David Beckham, star midfielder and husband of former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Because he is both good-looking and married to a one-time pop-star, Beckham has managed to be the rare soccer player who Americans care about (or at least are aware of). His signing was considered to be a coup, and many MLS watchers insisted that with Beckham playing, soccer was about to take off in the U.S.
It didn’t. Soccer temporarily became popular, or perhaps more accurately, Beckham’s team, the L.A. Galaxy, found itself sucked briefly into his orbit. Beckham’s presence on the team did little to help the Galaxy win games, however, and soon enough he became just another celebrity living in southern California.
Far more important than Beckham’s signing to many fans was the signing of Cuauhtémoc Blanco, an aging Mexican star who was brought in by the Chicago Fire. Moving to the U.S. at age thirty-four, Blanco became the league’s second-highest paid athlete, trailing only Beckham, yet his arrival was almost completely overlooked by the English-language sports press.
For Spanish-language print and television in the U.S., however, Blanco’s signing was big news. Blanco is a popular and somewhat controversial star to Mexican soccer fans, a creative player from a tough Mexico City neighborhood who is prone to temper tantrums on the field. As an attacking midfielder with the Mexico City team, América, and as a member of the Mexican national team, Blanco was known as a prolific and aggressive goal scorer whose signature move involved gripping the sides of the ball with his feet to leap between two trapping defenders, carrying the ball with him.
Hispanic fans came out in droves to see him. When the Fire arrived in L.A. to play Chivas USA, fans bearing Mexican flags went to the airport just to see Blanco disembark. Mexican fans of Blanco were seen sporting Chicago Fire jerseys in Mexico—maybe the first time Mexican soccer fans held an allegiance to any American soccer team. At home, the Chicago Fire’s 2007 attendance soared 20 percent, and the team sold out six of its final seven home games.
Beckham and Blanco exemplify the bipolar nature of American soccer. Beckham, a smooth, handsome metrosexual, stands in for the upper-middle-class soccer fan in the United States, while Blanco, aging less gracefully, prone to violence on the field, and reluctant to embrace his fame, represents the Latino immigrant fans. Ask the boys on the Woodburn varsity team who their favorite players are, and Blanco’s name is in the conversation, not Beckham’s. Ask the average Anglo sports fan to name an MLS soccer player, and Beckham’s name would probably be the first, if not only name to spring to their lips. Cuauhtémoc Blanco? White guys don’t even know how to pronounce that.
“I was causing too much problems over there in Mexico. I wasn’t behaving. I would always disobey my mother, go outside and play, don’t do my homework, all that stuff. My mom decided to call my uncles here in Woodburn and have them come to pick me up. Since I didn’t have any papers, she told somebody to let me borrow papers that would fit my age. We went to the airport. She told me that I had to memorize the name so immigration can’t stop me. That’s all she said.–Manolo
Long before Octavio knew anything about Oregon, about brief daylight, endless drizzle, Douglas Firs and Taco Bell, long before he had an email account and went shopping at Wal-Mart, and long before he struggled with how to define himself, he was a spindly kid kicking a ball around on his family’s farm in the highlands of landlocked Guanajuato, just to the southeast of Mexico City and one of Mexico’s poorest states. Octavio lived in a concrete block house, one of six houses on a property that he described as “kind of like a little ranch.” His extended family also lived on the ranchito: his grandparents, his parents, uncles, aunts, four brothers, three sisters, and ten cousins, along with chickens, goats, cows, and several harassed dogs. The family farm produced milk, beans, corn, carrots, and tomatoes, but mostly sorghum, a drought-resistant grain used for making bread, porridge and cattle feed. Octavio had grown up eating food from the farm, and years later, when he lived in the United States, it was the taste of home-grown guavas that he missed most of all.
On weekday mornings when he was young, Octavio would walk fifteen minutes down a cobbled street, or sometimes dash across the field behind his house, to his village school, a concrete structure that hunched its shoulders at the base of a hill as if bracing itself for violence. Spines of rebar protruded from the edges of the flat concrete roof awaiting an eventual second-story. As Octavio walked to school, he kicked or carried a soccer ball, sometimes juggling it on his feet, knees, and head as he walked, sometimes passing it to friends before sprinting down the road to retrieve their pass. He was one of those kids who carried a ball with him everywhere, putting it under his feet in the classroom, bouncing it to friends at lunchtime, and organizing informal games after school. Back at home, he played two-on-two with his cousins, putting the ball down only to help his father repair the farm’s irrigation system, to spread out fertilizer, or to tend to the cattle.
When Octavio was thirteen, a scout from Club Atlas de Guadalajara, a professional Primera Division soccer team, spotted him playing in a multi-village tournament. The scout, a wiry guy in his 40s, wore Club Atlas warm-ups and looked as if he might have once been an athlete. He approached Octavio’s uncle Pedro, the team’s coach and tournament organizer who would later be shot and killed in a nearby town, and spoke to him as the game continued. Octavio watched them out of the corner of his eye. When the game ended, Pedro called Octavio over and introduced him to the scout. At first, Octavio thought his uncle was teasing him. Then he saw the Club Atlas patch on the scout’s blue jacket. Octavio stood there sweating on the school’s dried-out, patchy fútbol pitch, heart pounding, and listened.
If Octavio wanted to play soccer professionally, the scout said, he could help. He could get Octavio a spot on one of Atlas’s youth development teams in Irapuato. It would mean leaving his home and school, but if he had the talent and work ethic he could move his way up through the system.
“He said I can make money if I have enough talent. I said, ‘Yes.’ I was very happy that I had an opportunity to play.”
He wouldn’t get paid, but the potential for wealth was alluring. Most of Guanajuato’s residents make less than $10 a day, and over a quarter work in the U.S. and send money home, so the wages an unskilled farm boy like Octavio could expect weren’t high. As a professional fútbol player, however, Octavio might earn a high salary, possibly several hundred thousand dollars if he made it to a Primera Divisíon team, and at least decent wages if he played on a lower division team. The odds were stacked against him, just as the odds are stacked against the kids shooting playground hoops actually making it to the NBA, but he figured that he had little to lose.
Octavio knew what he wanted to do immediately. His family was self-sufficient but poor, and Octavio saw this as a chance both to help his family and to do the thing he loved most. His mother was reluctant—she had always been reluctant to let him play, worrying about injuries—but his father was supportive. The teams need players, his father said. If it’s what you want to do, you should try. After all, Octavio was thirteen, which, for boys in rural Mexico, meant that he was practically a man.
“My mom, she didn’t like it when I played soccer but I say if I don’t play soccer what am I going to do? Be in gangs? I always say that to her. What do you prefer? Be in gangs or play soccer? She has no answer for that.”
Octavio had one more year of mandatory schooling to finish. Following that, his future was uncertain. His village did not have a high school, and although Octavio was bright enough (in fact, he had sometimes notched one of the top ten scores in Guanajuato on competitive state tests) he wasn’t sure if his family could afford to send him to high school in another town.
So, in the fall of 2001, Octavio moved to Irapuato to live with his uncle Pedro and to begin life at soccer school.
Octavio had been to his uncle’s home before and considered the man rich. His house was bigger than any of the homes Octavio was familiar with, six rooms with only four residents: Pedro, his wife, and their two children. In his innocence, Octavio accepted Pedro’s explanation that he could afford such a nice house from raising cattle. Octavio was given his own room, a luxury, and the use of his uncle’s bicycle to ride to the stadium. The first day he arrived he stood looking at the field, one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. The grass was trim and lush and perfectly flat. It was like a blanket of grass and he wanted to lie down on it, wrap himself up in it. It was so exciting that he hardly slept that night.
Octavio’s new schedule began at 3:30 in the afternoon, when he left his uncle’s house after spending most of the day playing with his cousins. From 4:00 to 9:00 he practiced with about 40 other boys on Atlas’s 14 and under team—the youngest players in the developmental program. He stayed four days a week in the city, scrimmaging, working on drills, and playing games. On Fridays, Pedro drove him back to his village, where they spent weekends.
Octavio and his peers played against the developmental teams from other professional organizations: Pumas, Tigres, Chivas. They played international youth teams from the U.S. and Guatemala. They played high school teams. Once, in León, his squad played against the local university, a bunch of teenaged boys against men. Octavio saw the other team come out onto the field and couldn’t believe how big they were. Octavio’s team lost that game 3-2.
Octavio mostly played defense with Atlas. He liked being a defender, the way you responded to the other guy, anticipated their moves. After six months with Atlas, the coach told Octavio that he was doing so well they were considering moving him up.
“I was close to getting on the third division team, which is when they give a scholarship to you. They give you money; it’s almost like being on the real team. It means you have talent.”
Octavio felt simultaneously nervous and excited. It was a mark of his skill that he could move up, but the move meant that more would be expected of him.
About a month later, in a tournament game against another young squad from Cruz Azul, he was slide-tackled while running with the ball. Octavio’s left foot was planted on the ground, his right leg pulled back to kick. The opposing player came in from the left and slightly behind. Octavio didn’t see him. The defender’s outstretched leg hit the ball, and his momentum carried him onward, his body slamming into Octavio’s left leg. The plastic cleats of Octavio’s shoes anchored his leg in the grass, so when he was hit his leg was not swept out from under him. His leg bent at the knee, but not in the direction the knee was designed to bend.
At the moment of impact Octavio felt an intense pain and heard a crunch that sounded like plastic snapping. He fell to the grass thinking that he had broken his leg. He was sure of it; nothing else could hurt so much. He grabbed his knee with both hands and rolled back and forth in pain. The trainers carried Octavio off on a stretcher. He was sent to a local hospital, where the doctors x-rayed his leg. As Octavio understood it then, the diagnosis was a meniscus tear. The meniscus is a layer of cartilage that prevents friction between the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone). When a piece of meniscus breaks off, even a tiny piece, it irritates the knee joint. Because most of the meniscus has no blood flow, it cannot repair itself. The usual medical technique is to open up the knee and remove the torn piece of cartilage. He would need surgery and 8-9 months of rest.
Octavio returned home trying not to cry. His mother and grandparents hugged him; his cousins asked him what he would do next. His father was still working in Oregon, and when Octavio reached him on the phone his father tried to calm the boy, told him that it was okay, that he could start again. Octavio, his father told him, you always think that the world is coming to an end.
Octavio spent the next few weeks in bed reading and watching television. His mother and grandparents babied him, bringing him food and telling him how happy they were that he was home. They also told him not to listen to doctors. Like many rural Mexicans, his family preferred home remedies. Octavio’s mother and grandmother believed that his injury was caused by the local nerves having been shifted out of place. The solution to this problem was a movement therapy similar to chiropractic medicine. Every day for two months his mother and grandmother worked his knee with their hands, forcing blood through the muscles, trying to push the nerves back into place.
After a while Octavio was off his crutches, and a few weeks later he walked the uneven dirt road to school, his knee still aching every time his foot shifted on a rock or turned in a divot. In March, Octavio tried to rejoin his class, but it was too far into the school year. He would have to wait until the following September.
Octavio spent the next couple of months at home, helping on the farm, watching TV, hanging out with friends. His leg healed slowly, although he still couldn’t play soccer with it. He felt bored and wondered what to do.
At the end of spring, Octavio’s Uncle Ricardo returned from the U.S. for a visit. He made Octavio a proposal. They could return to Ricardo’s house in Oregon together. Octavio could see his father, and if he wanted, stay and work or go to school. Octavio was curious about the United States. He had heard stories about beautiful places and unimaginable wealth. He had seen it on television, and had seen the men who returned from El Norte in brand-new pickups, who spent money as if it could be plucked from the sky. But he also knew that moving to the U.S. was not like moving to Irapuato. If he left he would not be able to come back on the weekends, and possibly not be able to see his family for years.
Maybe it was the time he had already spent away from home that made him feel comfortable going abroad. Maybe it was the chance to see his father. Maybe it was the opportunity to get a good education, or the chance to make some money. Maybe it was some kind of redemption, as if the failure of a professional soccer career made it mandatory to succeed at something else. For all these reasons, and at the same time, for not quite any of these reasons, Octavio accepted Ricardo’s offer and left Mexico for a land he didn’t know.
“I thought about it and I decided that I would go. I’m not sure why. I think it was just to see that it was like. I had never been to America and I was curious.”