How a story about immigrants in small-town North Carolina turned into a soccer tale.
By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine, May 2007 issue)
Big-city journalist Paul Cuadros went to North Carolina after receiving a grant in 1999 to report on the dramatic demographic shift in the rural South. He ended up a state championship-winning high school soccer coach.
"I set out to report on the Latino Diaspora to the Southeast and not to write a book about soccer or coach a team," says Cuadros in the introduction to "A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America."
Soon after his arrival, Cuadros started paying close attention to the children of laborers who had been lured to the area to work in the poultry industry in Siler City. They loved playing soccer, which for them took the form of the cascarita - the informal pickup game.
"Futbol for these kids is everything," says Cuadros. "They have a passion for it. They play it whenever they can. When they actually come here, they find themselves alienated or they may find themselves in an ethnic enclave. They find that they're isolated, but they have futbol."
What they didn't have, Cuadros realized, "was an organized outlet for the sport they loved. … There are giant private leagues that provided good coaches, organized games on manicured fields, with shiny uniforms and referees. But these leagues had very few Latino boys or girls because of their cost.
"The Latino boys wanted to play. It was all they ever did. But they were relegated to the dusty dirt fields of the Siler City parks to play where no one would see their talent or cheer their goals."
While Mexican and Central American immigration to metropolitan areas in the USA has a long history, what Cuadros calls the "silent migration" to the rural South began in the mid-1990s, spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
NAFTA allowed heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural products into Mexico, where farmers couldn't compete with the low prices of the imported goods, writes Cuadros. That sent millions of rural Mexicans to seek work in urban areas, and when they couldn't find work there, they migrated to the USA to work in the meat-packing and poultry-processing industries, which welcomed the cheap labor. But not everybody greeted them eagerly.
One response to the growing Latino presence was an anti-immigrant rally in Siler City featuring former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. In this climate, and in a town where soccer was perceived as a threat to football, Cuadros campaigned to create a soccer program at the local high school, Jordan-Matthews.
After a three-year effort, J-M's Jets finally fielded a soccer team.
Cuadros, who was assistant coach the first season and head coach by the second season, had to first educate the players, mainly Mexican immigrants, on eligibility rules, particularly the importance of class attendance.
That many of the boys already held jobs or helped take care of younger siblings often kept them away from school or practice. And then there was the transition to playing organized ball and facing athletic, tactically savvy opposition. The players expected more cascarita at practice and had to adjust to fitness and tactical training.
"The cascarita," writes Cuadros, "had taught the team to play a tight ball-controlled game with good touches, flicks, and passing. That was the good thing about the cascarita. The bad thing was it taught them to be selfish - to be individuals and hog the ball. We needed a system that brought the strengths of the cascarita to the middle and eliminated the egotistical play."
Having observed the soccer of the giant youth clubs ("too large and regimented to develop good creative soccer") and the soccer of the kids who ("taught themselves [and] didn't need a coach or uniforms as prerequisites for play"), Cuadros knew what kind of style he wanted to see.
"America is the home of rock and roll," he writes, "but American soccer has been played more like a dirge. American soccer should be bold, it should be brash, and crazy, and creative, and wonderful. And it should be open to everyone."
In their third season, Los Jets won the state championship. When their bus rode into Siler City, cars honked in celebration, people came out of stores, shops and homes to wave congratulations.
"I saw white folks cheering, black folks clapping, and Latinos shouting happily," writes Cuadros, who with his team was featured with a large photo on the front page of the local newspaper the next day. They later marched and were cheered at the Siler City Christmas parade.
Cuadros, who now coaches J-M's boys and girls teams, reported that animosity toward the immigrants subsided as residents comprehended that the newcomers had created an economic rejuvenation.
But Jets players, despite their success, aren't finding many opportunities to continue their soccer careers beyond the local adult league.
"That's part of their story," says Cuadros. "Their access to higher education, access to their soccer ambitions have been impeded. They can't seem to break through."
Cuadros continues trying to convince college coaches to scout high school games rather than just relying on picking talent from the club system. But also keeping some of them out of college, despite their academic eligibility and soccer talent, is their residency status.
Cuadros believes college coaches, who frequently sign international students, could still find an avenue for such players. Meanwhile, legislation such as the Dream Act, which would create college opportunities for students in good standing who were undocumented when they arrived as children, has been stalled in amid the politically charged immigration debate.
"It's a hot-button issue," Cuadros says. "But for me it isn't. For me it's just about kids."