How far has American soccer come in providing opportunities for young Latino players?
By Mike Woitalla (Soccer America Magazine)
"Financially, it's a struggle," says Paul Walker, the founder and president of Southern California youth club Barcelona USA. "But I come from the point of view of being the underdog. I don't know why, it's just the way I grew up. I took on all challenges."
Nearly 90 percent of Barcelona USA's 500 players are Latinos. That many can't afford the high costs of American youth soccer is no surprise. In the world of paid coaches and tournament travel, it can cost more than $20,000 annually to run a competitive team of 15 players.
Three years ago, when the U.S. Soccer Federation commissioned an extensive participation study, one of its conclusions was that, "Among whites, the higher the household income, the higher the likelihood of playing soccer. Among Hispanics, just the opposite is true."
Because there's no shortage of non-Latino players whose parents can afford elite youth soccer, and these players have become increasingly better, it would be tempting for youth clubs to ignore low-income Latino youth. But that's not how Walker saw it.
"Our club was founded on the basis of going out into the community and bringing these kids into organized club youth soccer," Walker says, "which then gives them an avenue to not only develop their talents but to get into colleges."
In 1999 he enlisted longtime Southern California youth coach Cherif Zein and launched Barcelona USA. Walker grew up in Los Angeles playing basketball and didn't get involved in soccer until his children started playing in the early 1990s.
"When I first got involved," he says, "I thought there has to be a way to link these kids, who have so much to give, and soccer is all they care about, to provide them an avenue to get those levels - and why is it that they don't get there, and what is the problem?"
Walker, whose mother was an immigrant from Mexico, is fluent in Spanish and felt a link to the Latino community.
"In a nutshell, the parents are uneducated about the system," he says. "Two, financially they can't even think of getting involved. Three, the parents often may not speak English well enough so they stay away and it's hard to get close to them. So all those factors add up and the kids end up playing in their little local community league and that's it, they don't go anywhere. And the cycle repeats itself.
"What we did is go into the communities, talk to them in their native tongue and invite them out, no strings attached, no money involved and get them to see something they love. And once they see it, they want their kids to be involved."
Barcelona USA, based in Pasadena, must raise $100,000 annually for players unable to pay.
THE BARRIERS. The landscape of American soccer is a peculiar one, especially when compared to other soccer powers. It has been called a country club sport, because the youth game has been the domain of the white middle-class since its boom in the 1970s.
Elsewhere in the world, stars tend to come out of poorer communities, as they often do in traditional American sports. In the United States, youth soccer is a pay-to-play venture. Somewhere along the way, youth soccer in the USA was privatized.
Whereas interscholastic play in football, basketball and baseball provides pathways to higher levels for standouts in those sports, it generally doesn't in American soccer.
Young soccer players who aren't part of a major competitive club have little chance of being discovered. And although in Southern California many elite clubs field Hispanic-laden teams, by some estimates there are well over a 100,000 Latino kids playing in unaffiliated Los Angeles leagues.
And because it is practically unheard of for a competitive youth club not to use paid coaches - or to employ what they call "professional trainers" - cost will continue to exclude players.
Paid youth coaches -- who can earn $150 every time they show up for a practice or a game - are the main reason for the high cost of youth soccer. But there's also the travel to tournaments. It cost Barcelona USA more than $15,000 per team to compete in the 2007 Dallas Cup.
But the high costs are only one of the barriers facing many Latino players.
Paul Cuadros, the author of "A Home on the Field," which chronicles his efforts to create opportunities for Latino youth players in North Carolina, lists the other obstacles.
"Even requiring something like proof of medical health insurance," he says. "Hispanics as a group are the largest group in the United States that doesn't have health care coverage. A lot of that is due to the fact that many of the families are working in jobs that don't provide that coverage.
"Even if a child's family has scraped up the money to join an elite team, or if that team offers him or her that scholarship, you get to that medical health insurance proof and it stops them in their tracks. "Then there's the travel. Because they're working, parents just don't have as much time as some other families might to shepherd their kids around.
"Many of these clubs have registration where you sign up online and that technology gap is also another barrier for the Latino player who may not have access to a home computer and to an Internet service provider. So all these sorts of barriers exist."
Linda Lara runs the Strikers FC club in Las Cruces, N.M. She says her players come to her house to use her computer for tasks such as contacting college coaches.
While elite clubs in major metropolitan areas often "scholarship" low income players, Lara had to start her own competitive club to provide opportunities for Las Cruces children. It's meant spending her life savings on team travel and funding players' trips to ODP tryouts.
"There are some funds made available by ODP," she says. "But just to be eligible, you have to come up with $250 for the first tryout, which is a lot of money for my players.
"And if they waive a fee, the kid still has to get there. We had to send one boy to a tryout in Idaho. That's not an easy place to get to from Las Cruces. It means coming up with $800."
Thanks to the hard work and generosity of Lara, many Las Cruces players have moved on to play in college and some into the pros, such as New Mexico native Edgar Castillo, who plays for Mexican First Division club Santos.
In North Texas, which has one of the most competitive youth leagues in the country, the Classic League, leading clubs often waive fees for low-income players, who are essentially subsidized by the other parents. There are even cases around the country in which the girls' player fees subsidize the boys teams that recruit low-income kids.
Eleazar Jepson is the director of coaching of Sapitos y Ranitos FC in the heavily Latino south Dallas area of Oak Cliff. The club was founded by restaurant owner Raul Estrada and is supported by the Hispanic Youth Foundation.
The impetus for its creation was to create competitive teams for Latino youth so they can remain in their community rather than depend on recruitment from North Dallas clubs.
"I don't buy the claim that Latino talent around here isn't being overlooked because the big clubs offer scholarships," says Jepson. "Those go to a handful."
The Sapitos y Ranitos field more than 20 boys and girls teams, including three in the Classic League, which requires a long drive to Frisco, Texas.
"I drive a lot of players around," says Jepson, who points out that parents often work in the service industry, which requires weekend work.
Running a team in a low-income area requires much greater effort from administrators and coaches. When Jepson coached in North Dallas, he'd shoot e-mails out to parents with scheduling and other information.
"Now I do a lot of calling," he says. "Or I text message, because the parents are at work and can't answer their phones. Or I call one of them, who has to track down the others who don't have cell phones."
THE FEDERATION'S CHARGE. Before Sunil Gulati was elected U.S. Soccer President last year, he described the Hispanic community as a "huge constituency we have that isn't represented as a constituency in our organization, but it does have a much greater connectivity to the other parts of the game because of the heritage, the tradition, and roots."
As the governing body for the soccer in this country, U.S. Soccer certainly has an obligation to be inclusive - to represent and provide opportunities to the nation's entire soccer community. And of the U.S. Hispanic population of more than 40 million, a vast majority hails from soccer-loving nations.
The conclusion of the U.S. Soccer's Participation Survey included, "There's clearly a lot that can be learned from the foreign-born Hispanic population. But, unfortunately, this segment has a very loose connection to USSF today ... there's a real need for the USSF to forge a bond with them. Foreign-born Hispanics could prove a very useful model to follow for strengthening participation and fan interest in the USA."
U.S. Soccer plans to launch a Spanish-language Web site and the Technical Committee Gulati created will include a subcommittee to address the Latino issue. But some of the work, Gulati says, is done on the field.
"On Feb. 7 we had a great event," he says. "We beat Mexico, 2-0, which was good. We had 60,000 people in the stands, which was good. The ratings on Univision were phenomenal - the second highest rated sports event in the history of Spanish-language TV [in the USA].
"So more people, who in most cases [speak Spanish as] their primary language, and obviously that's going to be predominantly the Hispanic community, saw the U.S. national team than have ever seen them.
"That's a lot of outreach and a lot of marketing that we couldn't do if we set out to do it in a different way."
But that kind of awareness doesn't address the fact that young Latino players still face considerable barriers, or that the increase in Hispanic youth participation still hasn't been reflected significantly in the U.S. national teams. To that end, Gulati is starting to hold town hall-type meetings in large metropolitan areas. "One question is why do we lose talented players at young ages, why do they fall off," he says. "Especially from the ethnic communities and I'm thinking very much about the Hispanic community. Whether it's transportation, whether it's money, whether it's field space, all those sorts of issues. And we're asking, 'What would you do if you had resources?"
Judging in the future whether the U.S. Soccer succeeds in creating a greater link with the Latino community, Gulati said would be to see "far more communication, a marketing program. More players who look different when they play, and in some cases look different. It'd be nice to have a few players of the technical ability of Claudio Reyna or Hugo Perez or of Tab Ramos in some of our teams. That would big a big plus. More [Latino] coaches, more [Latino] referees."
It's been nearly 15 years since the U.S. Soccer Federation began dedicating a few staff coaches to creating liaisons with the Latino soccer community. They were charged with creating coaching clinics for Latinos who weren't familiar with the U.S. Soccer coaching schools and convincing unaffiliated Latin leagues to enter the fold.
Juan Carlos Michia (Region III) has been a regional coach for more than a decade and much of his work is creating "opportunity tryouts" for players from ethnic enclaves. Rene Miramontes (Region IV) returned to U.S. Soccer after a decade working as an assistant coach in MLS and coaching youth ball. Roberto Lopez is Region II men's coach.
But no U.S. national team at any age group has ever had a Latino head coach. Asked whether that's the reason why, despite significant numbers of Latino kids getting selected to some ODP teams, especially from Southern California, few make it to the national teams, Miramontes says, no.
"I've talked to the coaches," Miramontes says, "and they are seriously interested in the kind of player who's different than the players we generally have in the national teams.
"But one of the problems we have when we find an 'unknown' player and we take him out of his environment, is we dump him into this new environment. The game is faster. The game is stronger. You have the pressure of American coaches looking at this individual player based on the American mainstream. And it's not just the soccer, it's the cultural aspect.
"What I'm trying to figure out is there a way to get some sort of a middle step. We take this prospect out of the soccer culture he knows and now we want to put him in the American ODP or national team. I don't think he's going to perform the same way. There's going to be an adapting period.
"I think from that standpoint the coaches need to take into account the environment and culture the player's coming out of."
For sure, transforming the American style of play to include a greater Latin influence would be to emulate the world's most successful and entertaining teams. And to some extent, the groundwork for producing those kinds of players is being done at the grass-roots level to greater extent than ever.
Barcelona USA - one whose players, Eder Arreola, is in U.S. U-17 residency camp - sent four teams to this year's Dallas Cup, and all four reached the knockout stage of their division.
The oldest group, the U-16s, will be the first from the club to pursue college (or pro) opportunities, and Walker believes they all are capable of playing Division I college soccer.
Walker also believes that the trend of Coast Soccer League clubs to field a significant amount of Latinos, a trend he traces to within the last decade, will eventually lead to an increase of Latino players at the national level.
"It's hit the regional level but not the national level yet," Walker says. "At the national level they're still interested in selecting the big, strong athletic kid, not taking a smaller, technical, Latino kid.
"As the national program kind of wavers and doesn't really continue to progress on the international scene, more and more you're going to see these players getting chances.
"Or they hire coaches who have more of a mindset like that ... or it just evolves. The influx of creative players with flair will change the whole dynamic of how the national team plays."