years in the making, a book at the right time
So maybe you’ve heard. Mexicans love soccer. Maybe you’ve heard. Hispanics are a growing force in the American soccer world. But you haven’t heard the story of the the boys from Little Mexico.
Steve Wilson was kind enough to give TIAS the longest excerpt rights for his new book which details the story of Oregon’s Woodburn high school soccer team and their season chasing the American Dream. The introduction follows below, and in the coming days, a second piece will focus in on the stories of the players. This is American soccer. Read the excerpts. Buy the book.
The following is an excerpt from The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream by Steve Wilson. Copyright 2010. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
It was a cold wet November day in 2004 when the white boys from Lakeridge High confirmed everything that the Mexicans from Woodburn feared about themselves. It happened during a game of soccer, the one sport that Woodburn should dominate. Woodburn’s kids should be the best because they grow up with a balón de fútbol practically glued to their feet. They should have frightened the white boys.
But they didn’t.
That afternoon, as the clouds piled up darker and darker, the crowd standing three-deep at Woodburn High’s backup soccer field roared with an almost single voice, the voice of high school kids and their siblings, parents and their children. The beloved varsity field, recently rebuilt at great expense, had flooded, so aluminum bleachers and a portable scoreboard had been dragged to the old field, the bleachers sardine-packed with family members, all of them bundled in thick dark coats, their voices ringing in the crisp night air. In comparison, the 20 soccer players on the field, breath fogging before their faces, looked woefully under-dressed in their long-sleeve shirts and short pants.
Because this was a home game for the all-Hispanic Woodburn Bulldogs, known locally as Los Perros, the fans were mostly black-haired, brown-skinned people. The Lakeridge fans, blonde- and brown-haired parents wearing stylish clothing, sat slightly uncomfortably, together in one corner of the bleachers. Behind them sprawled the baseball field, a parking lot, and the looming shape of Woodburn High School.
Woodburn High School
Omar Mendoza, possibly the most dependable parent fan in Woodburn school history, sat in the bleachers with his wife, Pat, and their two daughters, Clarissa and Veronica. Omar kept his eyes focused on Carlos, the team’s budding star goalkeeper and Omar’s foster child. Across the field, standing near Carlos, Coach Mike Flannigan rapidly shouted instructions at the boys huddled around him. Assistant Coach Chuck Ransom stood by to translate for kids like center-midfielder Octavio, a recent arrival from Mexico whose grasp of English was still slippery during the excitement of games.
As the scoreboard’s timer counted down towards zero, players from both teams began to retake the field, rubbing their palms against the cold and jogging in place to keep their muscles loose. They had already played a regulation eighty-minute game that ended in a 0-0 tie. Because this was a quarterfinal playoff, Oregon rules dictated they play two mandatory overtimes of ten minutes each. Both overtimes would be played in full, regardless of the number of goals either team made.
Retaking the field with the rest of his team, Octavio felt nervous, wishing the game had already resumed. Octavio was an exotic-looking kid, not what most people would picture as a junior at an Oregon public high school or one of the best soccer players on one of the best teams in a very white state. He didn’t even look particularly Mexican. With his wiry build, dark skin, and Asiatic features, Octavio could be something far different, like a Malaysian pirate.
Reaching his position near the middle of the field, Octavio waited impatiently for the game to restart, glaring at the players from both teams around him. Octavio’s teammates may have liked him or disliked him, but they all agreed that his internal flame burned brightly. Octavio had ganas, an observer might say, a desire to achieve that fueled his flame and sometimes burned those around him.
Most of the other Woodburn Bulldogs rested on one knee. The opposing players, all of them nearly half a foot taller than the Bulldogs, stood in staggered formation on the other side of the field. The referee blew his whistle to start overtime, the la pelota pinballed back and forth between players, and Woodburn took control.
The Bulldogs drove into the Pacer backfield playing the kind of possession soccer—short passes, lots of lateral movement—that the team was known for. About a minute into the first overtime, Woodburn got the ball into dangerous territory near the goal and a Lakeridge defender booted it out of bounds past the end line, setting up an early corner kick.
Octavio, already warm, had stopped thinking. He had been playing fútbol since he was waist-high to his grandma, so he didn’t need to consider much on the field anymore. Instead, he reacted to the changing geometry around him, the ever-moving ball and the tumult of shouts and fast-moving legs, not with his mind, but with his feet. The corner kick was set up, he took his place among the crowd of players in front of the Pacer goal, and saw the ball come soaring toward the middle of the field.
As he ran forward, Octavio watched the ball bounce across the field between himself and teammate Rommell, a Brazilian exchange student. Both were running fast towards the Lakeridge goal, only a couple defenders in front of them. Octavio was dimly aware of the Woodburn fans on the east side of the field leaping to their feet and beginning to shout.
Octavio reached the ball first, turned, and ran a couple paces with the ball at his toes. He saw defenders rushing towards him, the goalkeeper crouched midway between the posts and a couple paces forward, and pulled his right leg back. A longtime defender who had recently been moved to midfield, Octavio didn’t get a lot of practice taking shots on goal, and he wasn’t the most accurate striker on the field, but he knew that when an opening presented itself, you took it.
Octavio swung his leg forward and blasted the ball towards the upper-left corner of the Pacer’s net. He saw the keeper leap toward it, the ball sailing past his outstretched arms, and the sudden tightening of the net as the ball sank deeply into it. Then Rommell was hugging him and people were jumping onto his back and he felt a joy that held his burning intensity at bay for the moment. His goal, the first of the night, had put the Perros up 1-0.
The Woodburn fans, bench players, and coaches leaped in the air and shouted; many of the players and family members, especially new arrivals from Mexico, prepared to storm the field, mistakenly thinking that the overtime had ended—like it did in college—with a Golden Goal. The referee stopped the clock while word was spread that in high school soccer the overtimes must be played in full. Finally, the crowd settled down and the game resumed.
Sensing the end of their season, the Pacers fought back hard, repeatedly pushing the ball into Woodburn territory through long passes that the shorter Woodburn players had trouble defending. Once the ball was on the grass, however, the Bulldogs’ intense defense prevented the Pacers from getting scoring opportunities. The first overtime ended with no additional goals, and deep into the second overtime, the game remained in Woodburn’s control. However, tempers flared as the game became more physical, and boys were springing up from fouls and squaring off as if to brawl.
Octavio watched Carlos angrily confront a Pacer player and then loudly complain to the referee, prompting a quick yellow card that sent Carlos off the field for a brief substitution. A couple of minutes later, as Carlos trotted back to his place in goal, the clock counted down to under a minute and the Woodburn reserve players, who normally sat on an aluminum bench across the field from the bleachers, all began to stand, sensing victory. Many of the fans also rose to watch the end.
The 2005 Woodburn High School Varsity team
With twenty seconds left in the game, a Lakeridge pass was called offsides near the Woodburn penalty box. Coach Mike Flannigan turned and high-fived his father, Brian, as the bench players behind him hooted and cheered. It was a devastating foul for the Pacers, and as the Woodburn fans screamed and pounded the bleachers with their feet, Carlos watched one of his teammates pick up the ball and place it on the field for a free kick. From his position in the Woodburn goal, Carlos could see past the players to the scoreboard, with its glowing digital clock and the glorious numbers 1-0.
The clock was stopped. This irritated Carlos. Although only a sophomore, Carlos was one of the most experienced players on the Woodburn side. Most of his teammates played three months of high school soccer every year, and pickup games whenever possible. Some of them played on a local Hispanic men’s league team, but these were games more suited to drinking beer and bragging than learning team discipline. Carlos was one of the few to play on a private club team, keeping him playing either indoors or outdoors nearly year-round.
Because of this, Carlos had played in more games than most of the Woodburn seniors, and never had he seen a referee so clearly favor one team over another. Usually in soccer, the clock never stops, and a ref will add extra time at the end of the game to make up for the non-playing time used by fouls. But this ref had whistled and rolled his arms over each other so often that Carlos felt like he was back in middle school playing football, and it seemed to him that most of these fouls favored Lakeridge. Now, with less than a minute to go, the clock was again stopped in Lakeridge’s favor.
Carlos tried to calm himself. As a transfer student to Woodburn, he was new to the team, but he felt that he was already one of the better players. He had been put in goal, but Carlos also played forward, a position that he favored because it allowed him to be aggressive, to force the issue, to use the strength in his legs to dominate. He loved hearing the crowd cheer when he scored, although he got a similar rush from a spectacular save in goal. Some of his teammates thought that he made some saves look more difficult than they really were, just to draw applause, and Carlos didn’t deny it. He soaked up positive attention.
He was frustrated, though, because of the clock, and since he had only just returned to the goal after a temporary ejection, he still felt edgy and angry. He focused on teammate Cheo, standing behind the ball. Carlos, and probably everybody else watching the game, expected one thing: Cheo would punt the ball downfield, the Woodburn midfielders and forwards would swarm around it, try to maintain possession, and kick it out of bounds if necessary. With about twenty seconds to go, the Pacers wouldn’t be able to get themselves in scoring position again.
Then, as he watched, something strange happened.
The ref jogged away from the ball, blowing his whistle to resume play. However, several Lakeridge players lingered near the ball, clearly upset about the foul and the impending end of their season. One of them, Danny Connors, stood within a few feet of the ball, effectively blocking a kick. For some reason, the ref had not cleared the Lakeridge players away. Carlos watched Cheo stand uncertainly, turning his head between the Lakeridge defenders and his teammates. Then Cheo tapped the ball with his foot, intending to move it away from Connors.
Carlos ran forward. He wasn’t sure why the ref didn’t clear the Lakeridge defenders and he wasn’t sure the ref saw what was happening. He recognized the clear threat that Connors represented, though, and since Cheo’s touch made the ball live, he decided to pick up the ball, to stop play until the ref could move the opposing players away.
The referee, twenty yards away at midfield, blew his whistle, stopping time again, and called another foul. This time it was a handball on Woodburn. A newspaper report later described how the call set off bedlam: “Coaches were screaming, the fans were going nuts, and a general feeling of confusion seemed to fall over the proceedings.”
On the sidelines, Coach Mike Flannigan began bellowing in rage. It wasn’t unusual for the normally mellow and thoughtful coach to become angry and yell during games, but he had never lost his cool this badly. He wasn’t alone. Even typically Zen-like Assistant Coach Chuck Ransom lost his temper as the ref approached and explained the call. They quieted down long enough for the ref to say that it was clear to him that Cheo’s touch had been the free kick, and that the goalkeeper had simply lost concentration and picked it up. He ignored their rebuttals about the lingering Lakeridge players and the absurdity of that being a free kick, and trotted away, Coach Flannigan livid in his wake.
On online soccer forums, many Oregonians protest that Woodburn, an all-Hispanic team, tends to get leeway on foul calls because so many soccer refs are Hispanic. Woodburn supporters like Flannigan are sure that it works the other way: Hispanic refs are harder on Woodburn players in order to prove their neutrality, and white refs are sometimes just plain-old racists. This ref, he was certain, was one of the latter.
Flannigan paced back and forth on the sidelines, trying to control his thoughts. Like it or not, the game was going to continue. His counterpart, Lakeridge Coach Paul Slover, had already shouted out a play and gotten his team ready for the free kick. Danny Connors, the player who had prevented Cheo from kicking the ball just seconds earlier, stood a few paces behind it, his face turned towards Carlos and the Woodburn goal.
Coach Flannigan watched helplessly as his players set up a defensive wall between the ball and the goal—the boys lining up shoulder to shoulder to prevent a direct shot on goal. He watched Carlos shouting at them, arranging them with waves of his gloved hands until he had the wall where he wanted it. The ref blew his whistle, restarting the game with only seconds to play. Connors ran forward and kicked, bending his shot over the wall toward the upper left corner of the Woodburn net.
Connors later said, “I thought, ‘I can’t miss this.’ Because that was the end of the game, really. I just knew I had to make it. I wasn’t allowed to miss it.”
Coach Flannigan could see Carlos jump and get his hands on the ball, deflecting it. But not far enough. Brushing past his fingers, the ball sailed on, hit the crossbar, and bounced in. Flannigan closed his eyes and grasped his head with his hands. He couldn’t believe it. Lakeridge had tied the game.
After two overtimes, Oregon high school soccer games go into penalty kicks. Each team selects six players to go one-on-one against the opposing keeper by kicking a stationary ball placed twelve yards from the goal. All six players shoot. When all are done, the team with the most goals wins. If the game is still tied, the PKs begin to count individually. Miss one, let the other team make one, and you’ve lost.
Omar Mendoza, still sitting in the bleachers, knew this perfectly well. Omar, whose perpetual scowl, broad chest, and thick head of black hair made him look like a short and bad tempered bear, had never played soccer. However, he had been coaching private club teams for nearly a decade, initially in an effort to strengthen Omar Junior’s club foot. Soon enough, though, Omar found that a guy with a truck, some time, and an open-door policy was a sought-after commodity by Woodburn boys. His teams, and soon afterwards, his house, became the standby diversion for kids who often had little parental direction or involvement. Omar got into soccer as a way to help his son OJ get healthy; he continued coaching to keep OJ and all of his friends from getting into trouble.
Omar watched the penalty kick setup nervously. He had faith in Carlos’s abilities as a keeper, but he had noticed that the other goalie was no slouch either. Also, he had seen the tempers flaring earlier in the game and knew that the Bulldogs were frustrated and angry. They need to calm down and concentrate, he thought.
Omar watched the first three kicks go in for both teams. The fourth Lakeridge player tried a low blast to the left, but this time Carlos guessed correctly and smothered the ball before it could hit the net, causing a wild cheer to rise from the Woodburn bench and the bleachers. Omar shouted encouragement.
Cheo, the Woodburn sweeper, stepped to the ball. If he made the kick he would put Woodburn up by 1, not a victory yet, but with only two players to follow him, possibly enough to make a difference. He took two, three, quick steps to the ball and hit it low and left. The keeper jumped right, getting his hands onto the ball, but Cheo’s shot slipped out of his grasp and shushed into the back of the net, putting Woodburn up by 1 and prompting another roar from the crowd. The noise died, though, as Danny Connors, the next Lakeridge player, also scored on an off-tempo low kick to the right,
tying the game.
The next two players, one from each team, failed to score, bringing forward Octavio, the final player to take a mandatory PK. Making the shot would advance his team to the semifinals, one game away from the team’s first championship bid in five years. Many of the watching Woodburn players and fans—mostly Catholics—clasped their hands in front of their faces, mumbling prayers in Spanish while they leaned forward. For once, Coach Flannigan stood still.
Octavio watched the Lakeridge keeper crouching in front of the net and decided to aim for the low-right corner, the opposite corner from where he had scored Woodburn’s only regulation goal. With all eyes on him, Octavio ran forward and kicked to the right. The keeper jumped left. The ball headed towards the right-hand post, then slipped past it, just outside, and a communal groan escaped from the Woodburn fans and reserve players.
With the mandatory six PKs each completed, and the game still tied, every kick now became a potential game-winner. Each team sent forward a player to take a PK in turn. If one scored and the other didn’t, the game was over.
The seventh Lakeridge player went first, and scored, making the PKs 5-4 in favor of Lakeridge. Woodburn’s Enrique, who had drilled the game-winning kick in the previous round, strolled to the ball. If he scored, the game remained tied. If he missed, Woodburn’s season was over. Enrique stood motionless, studying the keeper, trying to guess which way he would jump. The crowd silenced.
Taking two steps forward, Enrique smashed the ball toward the goal, dead on, and it barreled straight into the arms of the Lakeridge keeper. The small contingent of Lakeridge fans began to scream as the team ran onto the field, piling on to each other as if they had just won the state championship. The Woodburn reserves slumped back down on their bench as the players on the field fell to the grass or stood, heads down, stunned. Some of them wept openly. Shaking his head, Omar began to navigate through the murmuring crowd to the field.
Carlos rode home with Omar, not feeling defeated, but sick to his stomach. He had never been scored on like that shot from Connors in his life, not a free kick that he had time to reach, that he felt hit his hands. And he had never experienced anything like that crazy foul call at the end. He replayed the final moment of the game as he brushed his teeth and even as he lay in bed in the room he shared with his two half-brothers, Tino and Alex, and Omar’s son, OJ. All four bitched about the game and the unfairness of the call, the lucky kick, the inability of their best players to score on PKs.
Carlos obsessed about the game for months: how he shouldn’t have picked up the ball, how he should have jumped a second earlier, or punched the foul kick over the net instead of trying to catch it; how he should have guessed better during the PKs. It had come down to him, he thought, all eyes had been on him at the end. His choices could have made him a hero instead of just another bitter loser.
Eventually, he viewed it with his typical fatalism.
“It was a pretty nice goal,” Carlos said. “Right then I knew we were going to lose. It was meant to be. Stuff like that doesn’t happen for the hell of it.”
Three central figures (from left to right) are Freshman Coach Dave Ellingson, Varsity Head Coach Mike Flannigan, and JV Coach Levi Arias. Behind them are the 2005 varsity team (standing).
The handball call infuriated everybody connected with the Woodburn team and haunted the players afterwards. That night Cheo saw the scoreboard in his dreams. Omar fumed for days around his home, complaining to Pat about the terrible referee. Coaches Flannigan and Ransom, and Laura Lanka, the school’s principal, wrote letters of protest to the Oregon State Athletic Association. They never received much of a response and never learned what, if anything, had been said to the referee.
“Either he is incompetent, he got confused in the excitement of a playoff game, or it was intentional.” Ransom commented. “We’ll never know. Only he knows. But either way, it was a terrible call. It was the most horrible situation I’ve ever experienced with a sports team.”
Octavio left the game in shock and didn’t sleep for three days.
“We thought we were in the other round. Just kick the ball and that’s it. The game is over. Then I looked over and saw Cheo move the ball and Carlos pick it up. I didn’t understand what was happening. You are fighting for eighty minutes of normal time. Then twenty minutes for overtime. Then you lose in the last few seconds. It’s terrible. Sometimes I think about it and it doesn’t seem real. We were so close to making history.” As he so often would, he laid the blame on himself. “Then I missed the penalty kick and I ….” He exhaled with a sound like, “Whooooo….” that shrank out of his mouth and died.
From the other side of the field, Lakeridge Coach Paul Slover gave credit to his team and viewed the win from the perspective of the fortunate. In a newspaper interview he said, “Basically for us it came down to determination and will. I think we shocked them a bit.”
Coach Mike Flannigan took the loss hard, for despite the Pacers’ skillful foul and penalty kicking, he had no doubt that the referee had given Lakeridge the game. The 2004 team had been a surprise to Coach Flannigan because the Bulldogs had graduated a lot of seniors in 2003. He had expected 2004 to be a rebuilding year, but Woodburn had taken second place in their league and won their first two playoff games, even with a sophomore goalkeeper and lots of new players.
Coach Flannigan didn’t have much time to be upset, however. Even though the soccer season was over, he still had his Language Arts classes to prepare for, and the JV basketball team, which he also coached, was just beginning its season. Still, while the coach had experienced many playoff losses before, none had been quite as heart-wrenching as this one.
It wasn’t the loss ultimately that upset him, that made him drive home angrily and reenact the moment to his wife for weeks, it was the feeling that something had been stolen from his team. He worried that this defeat would break some of his kids, cause them to quit pushing forward, either in sports or academics; he worried that they would take the experience as proof that in the game of life, the cards really were stacked against them.
On Monday, back at school, Octavio once again looked around at the new high school building, which still represented unimaginable wealth. He had arrived in the United States three summers earlier, moved in with an uncle, and that fall, started as a freshman at Woodburn High. He described his first class as “Where you learn to say ‘hello.’” Nowa junior, he had signed up to take his first International Baccalaureate classes, having been told that the harder courses would impress college admissions officers. But some of the classes, especially one called Theory of Knowledge, baffled him. His uncle and aunt, with whom he lived, had left Octavio’s home town in Guanajuato, Mexico with grade-school educations, and were unable to help him with academic concepts such as rhetoric and semantics. So, stubbornly, Octavio sat up late trying to decipher what it was that he was supposed to learn.
With only a month left in the fall term, he was fearful of failing Theory of Knowledge. (Why is a chair called a chair?—it just didn’t make sense!) After working hard to learn English and maintaining nearly an A average, that kind of academic insult hurt badly. Worse than that, it made him question his decisions.
Octavio had given up a possible career as a professional soccer player in Mexico to come to Woodburn at 14, leaving his family behind. At first, it had seemed like an adventure, but now, after two years of school and the struggle to learn English, he knew that he would not be happy if he failed to go to college. In Mexico, sending a child to college was all but impossible for poor families; he would have been fortunate to go to high school. But here, the rules were different. Everybody went to high school, and successful people went to college. They studied, became scholars, teachers, architects. He saw how those people lived, in houses that had two bathrooms, curving stairways, and perfect green lawns. He saw those things and he wanted them.
But these latest setbacks, the loss to Lakeridge and the poor grades, made Octavio wonder if college was in his future. He wondered if any college coaches would offer him a spot. As a junior, he was eligible by NCAA rules to be contacted; he knew he had talent and he was a disciplined student; but no coaches had come calling, and he had only one year left in which to impress the world with his skills. Octavio wondered if he should have taken the offer from Fútbol Club Atlas, a First Division team in Mexico, to return. If he did go back to Mexico, he could probably regain his old spot on the developmental team. If he stayed in America, what was his future? Taping and painting? Clearing weeds? It was such a strange country that seemed to both welcome and reject him, and for the moment, Octavio didn’t know what to do about it.
Finally, Octavio told himself what players and coaches have told themselves at the end of every non-championship season since sports began. We’ve got a lot of good players, he thought. The sophomores and juniors will be bigger, faster, stronger. We’ll learn from this experience. I’ll practice penalty kicks. Just wait ’til next year.