Talented young Americans often face the choice of moving abroad to pursue their dreams. For Jose Francisco Torres, it seemed like the only option.
By Mike Woitalla (from the November 2008 issue of Soccer America Magazine)
Lisa Torres relishes the part of the weekend when she sits down in her East Texas home to watch Mexican soccer on television, because that's when she gets to see her son, who left home at age 16.
People will ask her, "How was the game? Did they win? How did Jose do?" But Lisa is just happy that she saw her son.
"When I see him on TV, it's like a blessing, because I know he's OK," she says. "What I'm thinking about is that he's OK, because he's so far away."
Before his junior season at Longview High School, Jose Francisco Torres was given the chance to leave for Mexico to pursue a professional career with Pachuca, one of the top clubs in the Western Hemisphere.
Torres had attended a tryout in Tyler, Texas, and was one of two youngsters invited to a trial at Pachuca, which lies 50 miles northeast of Mexico City. He returned with an offer. Should he leave high school in the middle of his junior year? Was he mature enough to live on his own? Could he handle the rigors of a professional soccer environment?
His high school coach, James Wright, who hails from England, had mixed feelings.
"His dad and mom and I talked about what do, and what I thought," says Wright. "It was a difficult thing for me, because I didn't want to lose him. It's hard not to be selfish."
Wright had watched Jose smash school scoring and assist records for the Lobos by his sophomore season. But he sympathized with Jose's aspirations.
"At his age, I was trying to do exactly the same thing," says Wright. "I did believe he should think about finishing high school, because that club is going to be there regardless. But you know how it is, these clubs want the kids when they're young and they want to be able to develop them."
For sure, training with pros instead of staying with peers whose talent didn't compare to his own would benefit Torres' development.
"He had that kind of talent and confidence to be a pro," says Wright. "I never doubted that he would have a problem adapting. He spoke Spanish fluently. I don't think that was ever a concern. His practice attitude was outstanding. He worked harder in the weight room than anybody. When he we ran, he ran his guts out. Some players are there just for the games. He was incredible in practice. Just a dream."
Wright did notice that Torres could become frustrated that players couldn't keep up with him – a sign that he was ready for a higher level.
"He had a good attitude about it," Wright says. "He never complained, but you could sense his frustration. His mind is racing about where he's running and what he's doing."
Lisa Torres (née Mezzell) was a stranger to soccer until introduced to the sport by her husband, Francisco, whom she met after he immigrated to Texas from Tampico, Mexico.
"When we were dating," she says, "he told me he was taking me to futbol game. When we got there I said, 'Football in Spanish is different than our football!"'
Lisa began enjoying the game and even started playing. She also learned Spanish, because after her first visit to Francisco's hometown she realized it wasn't much fun not understanding the conversations.
Jose was surrounded by the sport from birth, his father and uncles being avid players and fans.
"Jose was always behind the ball," she says. "He slept with his ball. He would watch Mexican soccer on television with his dad, and when he saw something he wanted to learn, he'd go in the backyard and work on it until he could do it. We had mini-goals in the yard. He also went to his father and his uncles' games."
Lisa remembers once when Jose was very young, watching Mexican soccer on TV, he pointed to the screen and said, "One day I'll play there."
As Jose grew up, he realized there were opportunities in the USA and the Longview community was confident he would turn into a star.
"The first time I saw him," says Wright, "he was about 5 or 6, and he was running around with spectacles held together with athletic tape, playing with much older kids, and he was amazing. It's been pointed out to me many times when I talk to people — you could see he was a special talent."
Before his freshman year of high school, Jose started playing in the local men's Latin league to get experience against bigger players, and he coped just fine while creating enthusiasm among the Latino community that they had a potential star in their midst.
James' wife, Margaret, is his assistant coach at Longview High School and followed Jose throughout his childhood.
"From day 1, everybody in East Texas knew Jose had a super gift," she says. "And the town really pulled together for him. You'd see a car wash in front of Wal-Mart to raise money for his soccer travel."
But outside of Longview, a city of 75,000, Jose's talent wasn't appreciated. Lisa says he went to Olympic Development Program tryouts for four or five straight years, traveling to places such as Dallas and Alabama, and each time came home with the same message: He was too small.
"In East Texas he was never judged by his size because he always proved himself on the field," says Lisa, "but when he went to ODP tryouts, they would point to some stat sheet and there'd be an issue with the fact that he was tiny."
One of the ODP coaches, a Latino whose name Lisa doesn't recall, advised the family that Jose, because of his size, was better off pursing a career in a Latin American country.
Lisa was astounded that a coach from the program charged with finding players for the U.S. national team program would recognize her son's talent but recommend he leave the country. The message that his own country wouldn't provide an avenue for the ambitious boy to pursue a soccer career made the offer from Pachuca – a team that since 2006 has won two Mexican league and four international titles — especially hard to turn down.
Lisa wasn't thrilled about her son leaving home, but couldn't say no.
"My husband had an opportunity to go pro in Mexico," she says. "But Jose was 4 months old at the time and Francisco decided it wouldn't be the right move. I hear my husband and my son's uncle talking about the chances they didn't take advantage of.
"I didn't want to hear, one day, Jose telling my grandchildren that he regretted not taking the opportunity when he had it. I didn't want that on my conscience."
In 2004, Jose Francisco Torres joined Pachuca. In 2006, one month before his 19th birthday, he made his first-team debut as a sub in the Apertura 2006 semifinals. He played three games in 2007. He started seeing time for Pachuca in international competition and this year has played in 18 of Pachuca's last 20 league games.
Torres, who now stands 5-foot-5, was finally noticed by the U.S. national team program and was courted by the U.S. U-23 team for the 2008 Olympics, but Pachuca didn't want him to leave the club during preseason training. When Coach Bob Bradley invited him in for World Cup qualifying play in October he accepted and entered the USA's 6-1 win over Cuba as a 68th minute sub.
"It's a dream," says Jose Francisco Torres. "Since I was little I always wanted to play on a U.S. national team. Finally, my dream is coming true. I just need to work hard and train hard, and try to earn a spot on the team."
No matter how far Torres, who turned 21 in October, goes with the U.S. national team, his play so far at Pachuca indicates that he has a promising pro career ahead of him. Leaving home at a young age has worked out.
The success of players such as Torres and New Jersey product Giuseppe Rossi, who left for Italy at age 13 and now stars in Spain's La Liga, will spur even more aggressive recruitment of young American players by foreign clubs.
But at least 95 percent of teens who join professional clubs won't make it. They may forfeit their education in pursuit of their soccer dreams. For some, depending on where they live and play, the soccer environment in the USA may be better for their development than what they'll find at a foreign club. For others, the foreign option may present a better path. For Torres, it seemed like the only choice.
"I'm sure it was very scary for Jose," says his mother. "It was for the rest of the family. It was a big step for him and I'm not sure if he knew if he was ready for it. We told him, 'If you don't like it, it's OK, you can come home.'"
But Jose stayed and his mother enjoys watching him on television.
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)