Talented Latino players in the Southland are torn between two imperatives; use the sport to get an education, or make soccer an end in itself.
When Armando Melendez was a 5-year-old boy growing up in El Salvador, he fell under the sway of a crazy uncle who had futbol on the brain. Instead of taking Armando to school in the mornings, Uncle Oscar would secretly spirit the boy off to a park for soccer practice.
Long before he could read or write much, Armando knew how to caress a leather ball with his instep, how to make the bouncing sphere obey his will. His talent kept shining when he moved to Los Angeles and played in the city parks where hundreds of thousands of futbolistas trample the grass into patches of dirt and sand.
Today, Armando Melendez is a 17-year-old soccer prodigy who has played on weed-covered fields in Whittier and Pico-Union--and in the temple-like stadiums of Argentina and the Netherlands. He is one of a small number of elite players from immigrant neighborhoods of the United States whose skills have drawn the eye of professional scouts in Europe and Latin America.
They are living a Latino version of "Hoop Dreams," with a soccer ball in place of a basketball. The game holds the promise of riches and glory for kids with few other advantages in life.
In Los Angeles, the pull of the dream is so strong that it leads a few young people to migrate back to Mexico to play for the big teams of Mexico City and Guadalajara. Others, barely high school age, have left their families to play in Europe. They are fodder for the same international market that scoops up teenagers from the savannas of West Africa and the shantytowns of Brazil.
It's a system where it is not always clear whose interests are being served, where agents can collect huge sums for "selling" young stars to wealthy teams.
"People think it's easy, but it's been a rough road," Armando said in his home, an apartment near USC. He's learned how to deal with the various adults who want to own his skills. "You have to show some sense so that people give you what you're worth."
Some youngsters are willing, even, to turn their back on that Holy Grail of American youth soccer, the college scholarship. In a sense, two cultures are competing for these young men. One sees sports as a path to college and assimilation into the American dream. The other believes that soccer can be an end in itself.
All these players have been nurtured and prodded along in their dreams and budding careers by immigrant fathers, relatives and coaches, men with cherished memories of games played in distant pueblos.
Most of these adult men see soccer as a Latino art form, the one thing they're really best at, a rite as sacred as going to church or learning the words to their national anthem.
"Our futbol is more lyrical, we're more technical, more intelligent," says Julio Velasquez, the Colombian-born coach of Futuras Estrellas [Future Stars], a youth team based in Norwalk. "We try to play in a way that pleases the eye."
Velasquez is Armando's coach. He made his reputation in Colombia, where he nurtured the careers of a handful of players who became international superstars. Today he lives modestly in Norwalk. He came to the U.S. because "I like difficult challenges--and being in a strange land."
Here, Velasquez has found two different soccer worlds.
In "soccer mom" America, the sport proceeds at a leisurely pace, even though it has grown dramatically in popularity. Most teams meet two days a week for practice. Minivans unload children for an hour or two, then pick them up in time to do their homework.
In Spanish-speaking Los Angeles, people take their soccer a lot more seriously.
Six nights a week, under the floodlights of a Santa Fe Springs park, Velasquez leads Armando and the other members of Futuras Estrellas in a series of professional-style drills. When players arrive at practice, they're expected to shake the hand of any adult present.
Velasquez's mission is to develop Southern California players for the international market, though he has yet to "sell" a player in two years of working here. He sent Armando to Argentina and Europe and is sending another kid to Guadalajara soon, all in the hopes they might land a contract. How much money would he expect in exchange for arranging a player's move to a professional team?
"I wouldn't ask for any amount that would prevent the transfer from going forward," he said. "But I'm not going to give him away for free, either." Such fees vary widely across the globe, from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Since Futuras Estrellas' players are all amateurs and none has signed a contract, such a payment to the team would be arranged as a sort of finder's fee, similar to those paid to agents in Europe and South America.
Velasquez believes deeply in the idea of soccer as a craft and profession.
"All [the Americans] want to do is win a trophy and have a medal hanging around their necks," he said. "When you have a talent, you should do more with it. You should be remunerated for it."
The two soccer worlds collided one day in November, when Futuras Estrellas played host to the Flyers team from La Canada Flintridge.
It was one of those moments in the life of the city when two completely different cultures--Spanish-speaking immigrant and suburban American--come into contact with one another on equal terms.
The game was played in Norwalk, on a field where much of the grass had been swallowed up by clover.
On the north side, the Flyers' parents took turns shouting words of encouragement.
"Good job, Justin!"
On the south side, the mostly Mexican parents of Futuras Estrellas were incensed by the rough, physical play of the suburbanites.
"Hit him back!" one parent yelled in Spanish. "Hit him in the jaw!"
Velasquez mocked the opposing team. In his eyes, the Americans were just chasing after the ball, relying on strength and endurance instead of skill.
"Look at those caballos [horses]!" he shouted in Spanish. "All the horses do is run! Let the horses run!"
The game ended in a 3-3 tie.
Futuras Estrellas had witnessed firsthand the growing sophistication of suburban soccer, a system that has produced more than its share of prodigies. And the boys from La Canada Flintridge got a lesson in soccer as Latino art form.
When the most talented young men play, the games attract the agents and scouts who are the link between talented youngsters and wealthy professional teams.
Last summer at a lush field in Chula Vista, near San Diego, owned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, some of the best teenage players in the United States played an all-star game.
On the sidelines, agents and scouts referred to groups of players by their dates of birth, as if discussing wine vintages--"This team is '83s, mostly. That one is '84s."
Jan Schiefloe, a Norwegian agent based in Northern California, sidled up to the parents of Michael Munoz, a talented midfielder from Orange County.
"He's the best player on the field," Schiefloe told Munoz's mother, Chris.
She answered that UC Berkeley had expressed interest in her son.
"He's too good for Berkeley," Schiefloe shot back. "He should be playing professionally."
Months later, after mulling over Schiefloe's offer of tryouts with pro teams in Sweden and Norway, Munoz took the soccer scholarship to Berkeley. Another standout that day, Aaron Lopez of Santa Barbara, turned down offers from Mexican league teams and instead will play for UCLA next year.
Armando Melendez has felt the tug between these two sports cultures, with their sharply contrasting ambitions and definitions of success.
He had a stack of letters from college recruiters promising "full ride" athletic scholarships. For a kid whose mom cleans houses and whose dad drives a truck, it was like winning the lottery.
But going to college might mean the end of Armando's professional ambitions. People in the know say soccer is like ballet: You can be great only if you make it your job from an early age. Pro coaches frown on college soccer as a "hobby" that retards the development of the very best players.
Besides, Julio Velasquez, the coach who helped hone his skills through seven-day-a-week practices with Futuras Estrellas, was counting on Armando to turn pro.
"He says he's made sacrifices for me and the other players," Armando said. "If I go to college he won't get anything out of it."
More and more Latino youngsters are choosing overseas soccer, rejecting not only college but the United States' own burgeoning soccer system. This speaks volumes about what critics say is a gaping ethnic divide in the sport here.
Hundreds of the best players in the United States are funneled each year into the "Olympic Development Program" run by U.S. Soccer, the sport's governing body. The players nurtured by this system are, almost exclusively, products of suburban leagues. They get the big scholarships. The best might get a chance to play in the globe's biggest professional sporting event, the World Cup.
"You've got hundreds of thousands of [Latino] kids from soccer backgrounds and they're being ignored" by the sport's hierarchy, says Paul Gardner, the dean of American soccer writers. "It's sort of scandalous."
U.S. Soccer officials acknowledge the imbalance, a product of the organization's roots in old, European immigrant communities. They've hired scouts in Los Angeles and Miami to make inroads in Latino soccer circles.
One young man U.S. Soccer discovered early was Raul Palomares of Inglewood.
Four years ago, at age 14, Raul toured Europe as a member of a U.S. all-star team. He played a game in Vienna. The next day, a pair of German coaches invited him and his father to dinner.
It was a heady moment not only for Raul but also for his father, Jose Luis Palomares, a mechanic who has spent most of his life playing and coaching soccer. The Germans wanted to sign his son to an "amateur contract": Raul would train with the team for four years, with no pay, and then turn professional.
Raul has lived in Europe ever since, mostly in Kaiserslautern, a smallish town of winding streets in western Germany.
"He's 9,000 miles away from home," said his agent, Peter Novakovic. "My hat's off to him. He's eating bratwurst and sauerkraut. Before it was tortas and quesadillas.'
Jose Luis Palomares and his wife have spent thousands of dollars to support their son's budding career. In Germany, he lives with a family friend.
Now he speaks fluent German and is a minor celebrity in Kaiserslautern.
For Raul, European soccer has been part glamour, part tedium. It seems all he does is study and train. He has yet to play for Kaiserslautern's first team, though he is a standout for its youth squad. Sometimes he takes long bus rides to play games in gritty parts of eastern Germany. Fans cuss him out when he doesn't play well.
"I do miss my family back in California," Palomares admitted during a phone interview from Europe. "But this is what I have to do to succeed as a professional."
Bensaheth Solis, 18, of Anaheim, seems about to take a similar path, but south to Mexico. That's where his father, Antonio, once indulged his passion for soccer in the only "field" available to them in the rural hamlet of Huejotitlan, Mexico: the corral. They would shoo away horses and start kicking a ball around.
To play big-time professional soccer was Antonio's dream. He was courted, in his youth, by the team that is central Mexico's soccer equivalent of the baseball Yankees, the Chivas of Guadalajara.
Son Bensaheth, a graduate of Katella High, is a standout soccer player. The state of Bensaheth's game is a daily topic of family discussion. In October, he was the subject of a feature article in La Opinion. Everyone in the family can see Bensaheth's talent, his poise on the field.
Ask him about going to college--North Carolina was interested in him at one point--and he simply shrugs. His goal instead is to play for Atlas in Guadalajara. He watches Mexican league games on Spanish-language television and is certain he could play at that level. This spring, Atlas invited him to a tryout.
"Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to play in Mexico," Bensaheth says.
"This is a matter of destiny," said father Antonio, 52, an aircraft factory worker. "Fate gave my son this opportunity. Now it's his life to lead."
Up and down the grungy, carpeted stairs, Armando Melendez runs. Twenty steps up to the small apartment he shares with his Salvadoran immigrant family, then back down to touch the black steel door with its pin-sized shafts of sunlight.
His room is filled with posters of players from Boca Juniors. The Argentine team, one of the world's most famous clubs, offered him a tryout in December 1999.
Armando flew to Buenos Aires full of expectations, along with four other Futuras Estrellas players. He scored three goals in two practice games, a performance impressive enough for him to earn a private audience with a top Boca official.
"Hopefully your coach doesn't want too much money," the official said.
The Boca official then threw out a figure: $100,000. But to this day, Armando isn't sure if the man was serious or just joking.
"I didn't think they would pay that much for amateurs like us," he said.
A Buenos Aires sports magazine wrote about his visit and that clipping is now in Armando's scrapbook. Someone suggested he might make $30,000 a year to start. Boca wanted him to stay longer but he couldn't because changing his airplane ticket would have been too expensive.
The Argentine team promised to call him back but never did.
Back in the States, Armando's parents didn't put any pressure on him to decide between college or turning pro, maybe in Mexico. To them, it was a win-win situation. Armando saw it that way too.
"Everything I receive now is a reward for all the hard work I put in," he said.
The newspaper clippings and college letters were splayed on the carpet in front of him, in a room where the walls are lined with his trophies and medals.
His coach, Velasquez, offered a clinical assessment of what would happen to Armando if he joined a university team: "He is a player who needs to control his weight. If he doesn't train every day, he will get too heavy."
Finally, in February, Armando made a decision.
He quit Futuras Estrellas and took a soccer scholarship with Loyola Marymount University.
"I committed," he said. "I signed the letter."
A few weeks later, he got a call from the Salvadoran soccer federation. They wanted him to represent El Salvador in a qualifying tournament for the 2001 Youth World Cup. They promised to send him a plane ticket to Panama. Would he play for them?
Yes, Armando said.
But the ticket never arrived.
Instead, in the weeks that followed, his mailbox would fill with other things: brochures about life at the LMU campus and the catalog for the coming school year. The boy whose uncle took him out of school to play soccer is now considering a degree in business administration.
Armando Melendez eventually chose LMU over college, as did Aaron Lopez., who went on to play for UCLA and score the winning goal in the NCAA championship. Raul Palomares stayed abroad but never made it with a major European team, though he did sign for clubs in Croatia and Bosnia and eventually dated a famous Croatian skier. After graduating, Aaron Lopez played briefly for Chivas USA of Major League Soccer.