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Latino Immigration and U.S. Soccer

Practically all the U.S. stars—Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, "Oguchi" Onyewu, and Tim Howard—are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. But—despite an ever growing tide of immigration from soccer-frenzied Latin America, Hispanic representation on the national side has not kept pace. In fact, many have noted that at times it seems like things have been going in reverse, with the number of Hispanic players actually shrinking—from five when the cup was played on U.S. soil in 1994, to only three in Germany in 2006.

This time around, two young Latino players—Jose Torres and Herculez Gomez—are poised to play a breakout role for the U.S. in South Africa, but the general pattern remains the same. Latinos represent a big chunk of the ranks of talented footballers at the youth level, but a mix of structural hurdles and stylistic bias seems to prevent them from reaching the pinnacle of U.S. soccer.

Author Steve Wilson just wrote a great book about a group of such kids—a talented, Latino high school team from Woodburn, Oregon on their quest to win a state championship—called The Boys from Little Mexico. I called him up to get his thoughts on the paucity of Latinos in the upper ranks of U.S. soccer:

The talented Woodburn team you followed is comprised almost entirely of Latino immigrants or their children. Yet, despite a large and growing Hispanic population that’s crazy about soccer, only a few players on the U.S. team in South Africa are of Hispanic origin. Did that surprise you?

No, because I’d watched the World Cup. I knew we mostly had a bunch of white, college educated players, so I wasn’t shocked to not find a lot of Latino players. The same thing holds true for our college teams. Loads and loads of Latinos are playing soccer [at the youth level] but not a lot are moving on to play at the professional and the college levels.

What’s interesting about this world cup team is that we have a few guys like Bornstein and Bocanegra who have Mexican-American parents and who came up through traditional channels, but the two guys who are new this year, Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres, are the first two who have taken an alterative route to get to the team. Instead of playing on some really expensive club teams and going to college, these guys got scouted by Mexican teams and ended up going south of the border to get their experience down there. This is something that I think was brand new, and this was something that the kids I met who were serious about playing were also thinking about. They had the mindset that there were more opportunities to try out and play in Mexico—those kids that were documented and could go back and forth [across the border], at least.

So, about U.S. soccer’s failure to recruit and develop more Latino players—is it simply the equivalent of the inner-city schoolyard basketball legend who never gets his due? In other words, why is it important to look beyond poverty to other issues like language and culture and the education system by way of explanation?

The immediate difference between soccer and basketball is the popularity factor and how much money you can make as a professional athlete in this country. So if you’re a really good black basketball player and you’re not in a really good school district for basketball, there are lots of guys from private schools out there looking for you to boost their school. I don’t think we have that going on at the high school level in soccer because there’s not the same kind of money for soccer. We just don’t have a bunch of adults going around looking for those highly skilled playground kids and, even if we did, we don’t have a place to put them once we find them. But this seems to be happening more with scouts from Mexican teams that are coming up here.

What about the fact that many U.S. players currently get additional grooming though college?

It’s true. In the U.S. there’s a real big education gap between Latino kids and white kids and even young Latino men and women. Latino kids aren’t graduating and going to college at nearly the same rate. At Woodburn, there would be highly skilled soccer players that local colleges would be interested in, but they didn’t have the grades. They don’t bend the rules like they do with football and basketball, so you have to have decent grades to make it into college and our country is having a very hard time educating Latino kids.

Some conservative commentators have chalked up the lack of representation among Latinos on U.S. professional teams as confirmation of the “Latinos don’t want to assimilate” thesis. John Ziegler, a conservative radio host from Los Angeles, even used TV ratings from the Mexico and U.S. games in 2006 as evidence that the allegiances of Mexican-Americans lay elsewhere. What do you make of this?

Most of the kids on Woodburn watched Mexican teams. For most it was Chivas or Pumas or Atlas. A couple would prefer Real Madrid or Barcelona or an EPL team. But for the most part, they were watching Mexican teams. One of the things I learned from my research about immigration from Mexico: What makes it different from almost all the other groups we’ve had is [the existence of] a land border and a constant back-and-forth flow. It’s not like Ireland with a whole group coming over at one time and not a lot of options to go back. Of course, even back then assimilation and acculturation didn’t happen as quickly as it’s romanticized.

When I asked why they preferred to watch the Mexican teams, a few would say, “Because I’m Mexican,” but most would say because the Mexican teams are better.

This issue of Latino representation has risen up through the ranks of U.S. soccer enthusiasts. Columnist Paul Gardner has harped on it for years and the current president of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati, seems to have made this one of his aims. How would you rate his efforts?

I think that American soccer is doing a much better job than it used to be. I think even in the last five years it’s changed a lot. Sueño MLS had just happened [when I started working on the book]. It was one of the first attempts to reach out to Latino players who might have flown under the radar.

The other thing going on right now that will have an effect, I think, is [newly appointed U.S. Soccer youth technical director] Claudio Reyna’s youth soccer strategy. The idea is to try to make U.S. soccer less organized. He is trying to make coaches give the kids time to just play and improvise. For me, what’s interesting is that when you split America up into its two different soccer fan bases, the white group tends to play organized soccer from a very young age. My son is two and they had him doing these drills when you jump over things and walk backwards. It was ridiculous. There are always adults who are running things and you have all these steps you run though. But it’s missing the play time that allows people to be creative. That’s the thing that Latinos are often said to bring to the table.

Anything else to add?

One more thing. It’s occurred to me that one of the big differences between the Latino and average American sports fan is the view of soccer as a masculine activity. I think that in the U.S. you’ve got the Latino groups who view soccer as very manly, whereas the average fan views it as a woman’s sport and a child’s activity. The very words they use for other sports legends of toughness and grit, people like Cal Ripkin and Brett Farve—these romanticized masculine descriptions we use—they don’t apply them to soccer players. I think one of the things that’s really holding soccer back is our perception of it as not a manly thing to do.

A key to it for me was getting up close to the field. Those pictures in Vanity Fair of Ronaldo and Drogba where they’re sexy and wearing their underwear? That feeds into the average American sports fans’ view of soccer being pretty. And the biggest name we think about is Beckham. But I think what they need to do is force a narrative of manliness. Get people thinking about soccer as difficult, violent, physical, and hard—with pushing and shoving. That’s what I think is going to get it popular in the U.S. but I don’t see it happening right now. They’re saying it’s athletic and attractive, but I think they’re missing out on what we really talk about when we talk about sports.