Las Vegas soccer is divided into two worlds: the ligas americanas and ligas mexicanas. Can they learn to speak the same language - and create another soccer star?
We had crossed a border in the Las Vegas Valley, less than 10 miles from our house.
The people spoke a different language. The sidelines of the field were not only for parents to sit on lawn chairs and watch the game, but for vendors to sell ice cream paletas. And although the game was the same - a ball rolling across a green field, nets on both sides - it also struck me what the coach said to my son Jesse, 12 at the time.
"Relax, be yourself, go out there and create something, go have fun," he told him, minutes before the game started.
Jesse exhaled. About five minutes later, he scored a goal on a breakaway, putting his foot on a perfect, low, crossing pass.
Only weeks before, Jesse had finally scored his first goal in one of the last games of a long season on a suburban, mostly white soccer team. We had both gotten tired of the coach screaming from the sidelines, the itching fear that a mistake could cost a win, apparently the worst possible outcome in the career of a youth soccer player on those teams.
We wanted to keep the sport in our family, half of whom, including Jesse, were born in Colombia, where the game is as everyday as rice and beans. He wanted to keep improving as a player. Where to turn?
It was time to cross town, from the ligas americanas to the land of the ligas mexicanas.
Sprint for the border
So it is we entered deeper into the balkanized world of soccer in the Las Vegas Valley, where two nations of up to 20,000 youths play the so-called beautiful game on opposite sides of the track - one in English, the other in Spanish; one in leagues, clubs and teams with names like Premier and Heat that carry hefty fees and are authorized by soccer associations, the other in leagues, clubs and teams called Jaguares and Zamora that often come and go; one practiced on flat and firm fields, brightly lit at night, like those at Summerlin's massive Kellog-Zaher park; the other, often learned on rutted schoolyards in east Las Vegas; one exposed to scouts from college or beyond, the other, not so much. And in one, winning is often held up as all, even to players as young as 6, while in the other, you play for the deep joy of the game, and then win.
This fall, masses of would-be future footballers will line up along this divide, on fields across the valley, ready to launch another season.
Las Vegas sent its first player to the World Cup this spring. He was Herculez Gomez, the only U.S. team member whose parents were Mexican immigrants. Nielsen estimates that 112 million Americans saw some part of the 2010 World Cup. And the valley's football cognoscenti say we can create another Herculez - if we can build a bridge across this cultural divide.
As president of Nevada Youth Soccer Association, Guy Hobbs was the state's top soccer official for most of the past decade until stepping down in 2009. He says Nevada is losing out on talent by maintaining its system. The state, and other states with similar situations, are missing other Herculez Gomezes.
On several occasions during his nearly seven-year tenure, so-called Hispanic leagues approached him with interest in joining the association. On taking it to the existing leagues, he found resistance. "They would always ask, 'Why don't they just become a part of our leagues?'" he says.
Eventually, Hobbs was able to broker the entrance of two Hispanic leagues into the association, out of a total of eight, which together field more than 13,000 players.
Similar scenes play out in many cities across the nation. Sunul Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said in a Wall Street Journal article published the day after the World Cup launched that Hispanics are a key ingredient in the sport's future, both as it's played across the United States and as a business.
But the current paradigm has existed locally, and in other states, for decades. In the valley, it is an overlooked byproduct of the controversial boom in immigration that has changed the face of Clark County forever.
The trials of Herculez
In the early 1990s, Herculez Gomez's father, Manuel Gomez, knew he would have to navigate the Hispanic and non-Hispanic worlds if his gifted son were to have a chance at success in the game.
He put Herculez, then 10, in Neusport, one of the older, bigger clubs in the state-authorized leagues - the ligas americanas, as they're known in Spanish.
Manuel's decision was as much cultural as it was athletic. "I wanted him to learn about organization, order and discipline," he says.
The fact is, in most of the so-called Hispanic teams, clubs and leagues, not everyone shows up for practice on time. Players frequently switch teams. Schedules are announced one or two days before game time. And coaches, parents and players often translate their passion for the game into vocal protests against opposing coaches, parents and players - not to mention referees. Practically none of these things are true of teams and clubs in the state-authorized leagues, or at least, not as much.
But, says Manuel, once Herculez had learned those lessons, he felt something else was lacking - the creative, free-flowing spirit that Jesse found his first night on that field at Eastern and St. Louis avenues, and the relationship between player and ball seen throughout Latin America.
Now 28, Herculez says he's benefitted from acquiring what he calls "two styles ... making it look pretty [versus] ... more aerial battles, more speed."
Indeed, many U.S.-born or English coaches in the ligas americanas teach a kind of soccer emphasizing speed and strength, with no one player holding onto the ball for too long; long passes combined with fast runs are the preferred path to goals. It's been called run-and-gun, modeled on some of the English Premier League teams. This is, more or less, the kind of game the U.S. team plays. It is decidedly not the game played by World Cup champion, Spain.
Lito Carbajal, who for eight years covered the local Hispanic soccer scene for Spanish-language newsweekly El Tiempo, puts it this way: "It's as if American players are taught not to like the ball, because they want to get rid of it so quickly."
Throughout Latin America, however, children learn just the opposite: Touching the ball, and seeing what your feet, thighs, chest and head can do with it, is an obsession. "Latinos are in love with the ball," Carbajal says.
So when Manuel Gomez wanted to make sure his son didn't fall out of love with the ball and that he learned the technical skills needed to make magic happen on the field, he put his son on Limón, a Hispanic team. Herculez went from being one of three Hispanic players to being surrounded by children of immigrants.
Within a year or so, he was trying out for various teams in Mexico. That didn't pan out. Then he bounced around semi-professional teams in San Diego. Finally, he entered Major League Soccer, which moved him from team to team and even changed his position. Finally, a year ago, he crossed the border again, this time landing a spot on the Mexican team, Puebla, where he made history last spring by becoming the first U.S.-born player to lead a foreign league in scoring. That landed him his spot on the U.S. team at the World Cup. This coming season, he returns to Mexico, where Pachuca, a larger team, has signed him.
Does his journey - not a straight line by any means -- provide a road map?
Hybrid clubs: Viva ... Amexico?
Two decades after Gomez started out, Larry Gutierrez, an Argentinian immigrant and a plumber by trade, is trying to navigate a similar route with his son, Brian.
Brian "grew to love the game" in the first seven years of his life in Buenos Aires, "where it's normal [for children to play soccer with] ...skill, with flair, to play with a smile on their faces," Gutierrez says. When Brian was 8, now in Las Vegas, Gutierrez enrolled his son in Premier, another large, state-authorized club. The boy was the only Hispanic on the team. The team waived certain fees, making it easier for the plumber to keep his son on the club. But he also began seeing the same approach to the game that concerned Manuel Gomez.
"Americans like to play more with strength," says Gutierrez. "It's more robotic. ... It's very physical."
By the time Brian was 12, Gutierrez had his son playing with a team of mostly Hispanic players that competed in one of the state-authorized leagues. Over the next few years, he sought to perfect the formula of combining the best of both worlds, even finding a team, Cordica, whose staff had gringos and Hispanics. The team won important tournaments. Within three years, Brian was now on another team, Players Club, that was mostly Hispanic. The U.S. men's national youth team chose four of the team's players, including Brian, to try out in Florida. Brian didn't make the cut. But in late August, Dinamo Zagreb, a Croatian team that's played in major European tournaments, invited him to a tryout.
Saeed Bonabian, who founded Players, is an immigrant himself, having arrived from Iran in 1981 to attend college in Utah, after playing pro soccer in his home country. He moved to Las Vegas in 1989. Today he's president of the Elite Soccer League, one of the state-approved organizations.
This fall, Bonabian will attempt for the second time to link a liga mexicana to his own, drawing up a schedule that has about two dozen teams from the Las Vegas Valley League competing against the same number of teams from Elite, in the under-15 to under-18 divisions.
Bonabian says his first attempt to bridge the cultural divide - last spring - was botched by last-minute cancellations from the Hispanic league that nearly ground the season to a halt.
"(But) we are not going to give up," says Bonabian, convinced that integrating the two worlds is vital to the sport's development.
Suburban fields, rising prices, Mexican teams
Former association head Hobbs, who also happens to be a financial advisor, says the divide between ligas americanas and ligas mexicanas has as much to do with economics as playing style. For example, more land has historically been available in suburban Summerlin and even Henderson, which means they host the valley's best fields. This hampers what he calls "the emerging player base," or Hispanic families, many of whom live in the east and northeast part of the valley.
Rising prices are another factor. Membership in some of the larger clubs costs upward of $1,000 each year. Not to mention the Olympic Development Program, a gateway to the men's national team, which bears similar costs.
"In the last several years, the barrier is more and more economic. At the state and regional level, this is a terrible mistake," he says.
And then there's the housing bubble's burst, which economically battered many Hispanic families who worked in construction.
"From the standpoint of ... the best talent, are we identifying and developing it? No. And the bifurcation of the two worlds is the reason," Hobbs says.
They're watching you
Herculez Gomez points to another recent phenomenon that will shape the valley's two worlds - the arrival of Mexican league and other European league team scouts to Las Vegas - not to mention the advent of soccer schools, such as Mexico's Chivas and America. The Mexican professional league is among the world's richest, and has begun seeking talent in the valley's barrios and in other cities across the nation.
Since about 70 percent of the valley's 500,000-plus Hispanic population is of Mexican background, there is a lot of talent for these teams to choose from. Many would even be eligible to play on the Mexican national team.
Perhaps foretelling the next chapter in this evolving divide, Gomez says he hopes the local and national scenes get to the point where more players from the barrios somehow make it into U.S. colleges, Major League Soccer and the national team.
"I hope we get those players before they do," he says.
Bonabian is less optimistic.
"At the end of the day, those countries are going to benefit from this talent - and the U.S. won't," he says. "They've had every opportunity for years, and haven't taken advantage of it."