Tunnel of Love/Dire Straits

An audio clip from Luis Bueno of his SuperLiga interview with Pachuca’s Jose Francisco Torres reminded me that I need to get back on the trail of Michael Orozco. Like Torres, Orozco is an American-born soccer player plying his trade in Mexico. Unlike Torres, Orozco has been wearing the national shirt of the U.S.

I haven’t been able to make that happen just yet, but I did in my search come across a gentleman named Hugo Salcedo, a name I remembered from a New York Times article from the 90’s—which I found heading into my early TIAS feature on Martin Luther King Jr. high school.

Hugo has been around the block. He works for FIFA; he worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee (and played soccer in the Olympics), for MLS in development, received the 2008 Jerry Yeagley Award from NSCAA (Coaches Association), and has a son who played and now coaches at UCLA. And it turns out he helped young Orozco find his way. He continues to do so for other players.

I spoke to Salcedo this past April and saved the transcript in case I was able to get a hold of Orozco. That hasn’t happened. But the SuperLiga over the weekend got me thinking about the growing Mexican-American contingent again. And after hearing the Bueno-Torres interview, I revisited my talk with Salcedo. The torn-apart/love-hate feelings of having American youngsters play in Mexico and FOR Mexico, rushed right back into me. Love it or hate it, it’s a situation worth following, even if SuperLiga can’t get past Telefutura broadcasts and disgruntled press releases.

I was doing some research on Michael Orozco and your name came up as the guy who helped him land at San Luis. I was just hoping to get that story from you.

It is interesting because the first time I sent him down to Mexico I had not seen him play. It was his club coach, Sammy George who played with New England. He coached him in Orange County. And because I knew Sammy, he said to me that he had this kid who he didn’t think was going to get an opportunity here. That was 2005. So I met with Michael and his parents and told them how it was going to work. I never saw him play. I just trusted Sammy.

As a matter of fact, he first went to Nexaca. I knew some coaches there and I sent him down there after high school. He went – but it was not a good beginning. You know, new environments. He only lasted two-three weeks before coming back [to the U.S.]. He called me some time later and said he would like a second opportunity. So I talked to the coaches at Nexaca and they accepted him back. His progress was not really going in the direction we expected. I was working in Germany in the 2006 World Cup when Michael called me to tell me that the assistant coach from Nexaca, which by that time had moved to San Luis, had called him and asked him to follow him. So Michael asked for my opinion and I said “of course, Michael. Whenever somebody wants you, its much better than waiting for someone to give you an opportunity.” So I spoke to Raul Arias, the San Luis coach. Raul has been a true believer in the young players and also he had played some years ago in Southern California in the amateur league. He had a feel for young players to give opportunity to and that is what he saw in Michael. Its been wonderful to watch Michael grow as a player and as a man. I still speak to him every couple of weeks. You know Michael is one of those special players who covers a lot of space but you don’t notice much what he does. More and more as people see him, he is not fancy, he has good left and right for long passes, but I believe his strength is covering space. When he went to Mexico he was playing more defensive midfield. When I saw him come out on the back line I was a little bit surprised, but I guess that shows his flexibility and his ability to be given the responsibility of playing on the back line. One mistake—and he has made a few—and you know. That’s a lot of responsibility for a young player. A mistake in the midfield is not as final.

Michael and a few others share this story of Mexican blood and American birth, being looked over by the American system, and then flourishing in Mexico. Have you noticed an up tick in the interest in these and other players in similar situations.

Actually a reporter just called me a few minutes ago to ask me about not specifically Michael, but what is going on with Mexican-American kids playing well in Mexico. I believe there are four or five, maybe six already in the top division. A couple of things happened. The changes in dual-citizenship in Mexico and the U.S. has given the youngsters here in the U.S. the opportunity to what I would call a faster development of their own skills than they would have in the United States. If you take a look at some of these kids, they didn’t have the chance to go to college or chose not to go to college and as you know, here in the U.S., college is pretty much the window to be seen. If you are not in the national team program—U17, U20’s—you get lost. If you go to MLS the system is a little bit slower, because the teams in MLS have to win, so they want to bring in already proven players. And if you are not patient enough with some of these youngsters, they are not going to develop into the first team. I think that nowadays, you will see one or two—like you have seen in Colorado or with Altidore, but they have been in national team programs. Going back to Michael Orozco, I think the farthest he got into that uniform was the West Region. Same thing with Edgar Castillo. They were never taken into consideration for any national teams.

And now you have both with serious national team options. Michael is looking good for the Olympic Team, and Castillo has Mexican national team opportunities.

Absolutely. Francisco Torres for Pachuca, who I know Peter Nowak has approached, is also right there.

And for most the U.S. fans, until DC United went down to play Pachuca, they never heard of him. Its like Oh By The Way…

Oh by the way the young guy is really good.

On some level does it confuse, anger, or sadden you that that is the case?

Yes, but as you know, some of these kids are not in the club systems, so therefore they are not seen by ODP or regional teams. Even when they are seen, because of their style, they are not—they don’t fit in some of the club’s systems. Thanks to the dual citizenship, they can now go to Mexico and play as citizens. They have the skill and they don’t have to play as foreign players in terms of the rules. That helps the players and the clubs.

How is it that the Mexican clubs know about these kids and the U.S. National Team program does not? Is it this dual citizenship issue, that Mexico searches out those kids? Is it just a numbers game—too many kids for the MNT program to scout?

I believe it is more about the way they play. The coaches in Mexico they see more on the technical side and the adjustment side of the speed and strength. Here in the U.S.-I’ll give you an example. One kid who played in Tampa that was scouted by Tampa when they were in the MLS, he was scouted by Chivas in Los Angeles when Chivas was here and in 20 minutes—20 minutes Adam!—the assistant says I want this kid on my team. And I say I’m sorry but he already signed with MLS. Let me talk with MLS to see if they will let him go, which of course they did not. He then asked me why he wasn’t playing with team as he was one of the best youngsters he had seen in years. I said well, the coaches here think he is too technical and not strong enough to play defense.

So how did you get to be the go-to guy for Mexican-American soccer relations?

Well, I was born in Mexico many many many years ago. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 14. At that time there were no young teams so I had to play with adults at age 14. I was very fortunate to play for the United States Olympic team in 1972. I’ve always been grateful for the people who helped me get into soccer. I tried to play professional after that, but there were no teams at that time. So I just started being more on the administrative side. I became a licensed coach. I worked at the 1984 Olympic Committee in charge of the soccer teams. FIFA I guess liked the way I handled the soccer so they invited me in 1985 to join forces with them. I’ve been working with or for FIFA since 1985. In 1997 I worked for MLS for a year and a half, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to so I came back from New York to Los Angeles and started my own youth organization ten years ago to help kids go to school or to college or if you don’t want to go to college, maybe I can help find them professional teams. With my history I think I can offer good recommendations to young players. I’m not going to lead them into something that is not going to be good for them. The Southern California Youth Soccer Organization is where much of my energy is placed. We basically consult with teams and leagues to help them with whatever problems they may be having.

That consulting seems to be a running theme in your career.

It is funny. Things have definitely sped up. I get probably 3 calls a day from parents now. My first desire for them is to always go to college but by the time they call me they have pretty much made up their minds. They either don’t have the grades or they are just not interested. I was always playing soccer on the streets, you know with those soccer balls sized for youth.

How many of those kids are looking to Mexico?

I can answer that question by telling you that I will probably be sending four or six young players to Mexico this summer. Out of at least 40 or 50 that I have watched and spoken with. When I see them play, I am honest with them and with the parents. I say a lot, “I’m not the one making the judgment, but just from what I see, you are not going to make it in Mexico.” This four to six youngsters they have been with regional teams or with Chivas USA and maybe Preki didn’t like their style, but they haven’t had the right environment or the right teaching. Probably one or two of those six will stick in Mexico. Hopefully you will be calling me next year asking about that one or those two kids.

Are there kids for whatever reasons you recommend to stay in the U.S. and not go abroad?

Yes, that is much easier. What I do is talk to college coaches. Not the big schools that bring in kids from the national team programs but maybe a UC Riverside. My son, Jorge, is the coach at UCLA and he never asks me about any players. He already knows. People are calling him. And unfortunately, most of the players that I work with do not have the grades, especially for a school like UCLA. I pretend like I don’t even know who the coach of UCLA is.


Banner photograph of Michael Orozco from ISI Photos.