Border patrols

Mike Woitalla explains why US players are having to cross the Mexican border in order to get their break

José Francisco Torres and Edgar Castillo were born and raised in the US, the children of Mexican immigrants. Both showed signs of great soccer talent from an early age. Both were told that they were too small at the trials that lead to youth national team selection. Neither would have been heard from again as soccer players if they hadn’t moved to their parents’ homeland as teenagers to join Pachuca and Santos Laguna respectively.

Torres, 23, and Castillo, 24, have now both won Mexican first division titles and, after a tug-of-war with the Mexican federation, have played for the US national team (Torres saw action at the World Cup). Mexico, a footballing arch-rival, is providing a great service for US soccer by welcoming Mexican-American players into the youth programmes of its professional clubs.

For decades, US soccer has left largely untapped an obvious source of talent – the nation’s huge and ever-growing Hispanic population, which more than doubled from 22 million in 1990 to 48m in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. But Mexico’s clubs and its national team program are scouring the US for talent. Players who have previously gone undiscovered or unappreciated in their own country – like Torres and Castillo – are now being courted by clubs such as Tigres UANL, who have 16 American products in their youth system.

“With so many Mexicans living in the US, you can’t think there’s not talented players there, and we have a few who I think are very talented,” says Dennis te Kloese, a Dutchman who was youth director of Chivas USA in southern California before joining Tigres. “When I worked in the US, I saw there’s an incredible talent pool there.”

Mexico has a population of 111m. About 30m Mexican-Americans reside in the US (population 310m), plus an estimated 5m undocumented Mexicans. Since 1998, people of Mexican descent living abroad are eligible for citizenship of the country. That means Mexican-Americans won’t take up a club’s limited foreigner spots, which are usually filled with experienced South American players.

Other US products besides Pachuca’s Torres and Castillo (now with San Luis) have broken into Mexican clubs’ first teams to further demonstrate the value of looking north. Dallas product Marco Vidal tried out for Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas but says he was told by the club’s British coach Colin Clarke that he was too small. He helped Indios of Ciudad Juárez win promotion to the Mexican First Division and then reach the championship play-offs. Vidal now starts for Pachuca, also home to a third Mexican-American, Herculez Gomez. Gomez arrived in Mexico after playing in MLS and, while with Puebla, shared Golden Boot honours last season with new Man Utd favourite Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. (In December Pachuca will play in their third FIFA World Club Cup in four years.)

Sammy Ochoa, 24, is a regular with Tecos Estudiantes. Miguel Ponce was born in California and raised in Tijuana but played youth soccer on the American side of the border before, at age 14, joining Chivas Guadalajara, for whom he now starts at left-back. Mexico has thus become an alluring option for players who face barriers in the US. American youth soccer is a pay-to-play venture, and to play in the type of competitions that lead to discovery by national team and college scouts costs thousands of dollars a year, which is why US soccer has historically shut out the lower-income talent that in other nations is a prime source of stars.

Further limiting the kinds of players who rise to the top in the US is its reliance on college soccer as a feeder into the professional game and the national team. (For example, 16 members of the 2010 World Cup squad played at college level.) College soccer coaches restrict their recruiting efforts mainly to the middle-class youth players. If American basketball coaches used a similar approach to their soccer counterparts, we’d suck at basketball.

US soccer is still plagued by the long history of pervasive northern European and British influences. But, to its credit, the US Soccer Federation has expanded and diversified its scouting system. In 2007, it hired former Colombian World Cup player Wilmer Cabrera as Under-17 national team coach, making Cabrera the first Hispanic to head a male US national team at any level.

MLS clubs have launched youth programmes, which offer some cost-free opportunities for young players and an option that doesn’t require involvement in college soccer. But they don’t provide the highly competitive reserve teams that Mexican clubs have for players making the transition from youth development to the professional level. And the effort isn’t nearly expansive enough to tap all the talent in the huge nation.

This year, the US Under-20 national team called up three Mexican-Americans from Tigres. Not only are Mexican clubs discovering US talent, they’re helping nurture it.

From WSC 286 December 2010