The missing Latino link
One might guess that as a wave of Latino influence sweeps America, the effect on soccer, the U.S. game many Latinos adore more than any other, would be even more profound.
Instead, their numbers on the U.S. men's senior team have dwindled -- three were on the World Cup roster for 2006, compared with five in 1994.
"In '94, there was a great affinity for that United States team among Hispanics because there were many Latinos on that team," former national team star Hugo Perez observed.
"That isn't to say that the team has to be completely Latino, but there's more awareness of the team when there are some there. It's good for us to work together so that we can keep growing."
Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, has made reaching such potentially overlooked talent one of the aims for his tenure, outlining an initiative that would focus on inner-city players and bringing young prospects in those areas to the attention of youth national team programs. The move would allow players to bypass the expensive youth club route that often excludes those who cannot afford the fees. The pilot program is expected to roll out in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.
Gulati made no guarantees that the programs would bear fruit.
"My statistics training, and nothing else -- tells me that if your player pool is 100 million instead of 60 million, you've got a better chance of finding five good players. Very simplistic data analysis tells me that Hispanics play the game far more often, like the game more often, are playing it more times, more often and are passionate about it at younger ages and therefore the likelihood is that if you can figure out a way to get them into programs which generally they have been underrepresented in, we have a better chance."
Gulati pointed out that the programs were designed to reach other population groups in a context mutually beneficial to U.S. soccer as well.
"If you asked me, 'If the African-American community participated in soccer the way they do in basketball, would we win the World Cup in 2010?' I'd say, 'No, I'm not going to say that.' But if we all of a sudden had a large part of the population that has generally not been part of the sport playing, would it help? Of course it would."
The unique aspect of the Latino segment is that the population group is one that has embraced the game, even aiding the development of top U.S. players.
"The neighborhood we lived in was primarily Latino," recalled Ryan Dempsey, the older brother of Texas-raised national team star Clint Dempsey.
"Soccer was like freeze tag. It was something that all the kids liked to do in my grandmother's yard on a daily basis. It was the culture of the town that we were lucky enough to grow up in."
Clint Dempsey recalled how his father had at one point sold his boat to help the family meet expenses -- a substantial chunk of which went to pay for club soccer.
"It's tough for some Hispanics, and Caucasians, as well as African-Americans and players of every ethnicity. Money becomes an issue for some of the players who don't have that privilege," he said.
"I was fortunate enough to have parents who would sacrifice so much."
In California, Landon Donovan's story was similar.
"A lot of the kids I played with growing up just didn't have the resources, so they hit high school and they were off to do other things. A lot of them would end up in bad situations. These were kids that were a lot more talented than I was. It's kind of sad because I think that happens over and over," Donovan said.
Perez believed Gulati's move was an important step.
"We're missing more players and a bigger presence in the federation," Perez stated. "We need to develop more players from the time that they are young. We have good relations with the federation, but we need to have a plan. There's a lot of potential out there for the national team, for Hispanics to be more involved. It needs to start with the youth teams."
Some might wonder what took U.S. soccer so long to start such a program.
"The soccer federation for a long time has struggled to be solvent, to field teams and have the right preparation," Gulati said. "We're in a different situation now."
Clint Dempsey expected such outreach to create results.
"You're going to see the development of players improving and a lot of young and hungry kids coming up with something to prove," he said. "When we reach those kids, we're definitely going to see the level of soccer rise in the U.S."
That blueprint of success exists elsewhere.
"In all other parts of the world, you're developing players at a very young age and providing opportunities for them to advance," Perez said.
"In Brazil and Argentina, they have youth teams just for that purpose. We need to develop players from the time they are 7 or 8 years old."
A veteran of the early days of the modern U.S. soccer era, when the team struggled to earn respect, Perez was proud of how far the national squad had come, even as he hoped for better.
"In the United States, we have everything we need. The only thing that is missing for us to win a World Cup is to have players who are more creative, more talented and more technical. We already have good athletes, but if we can combine that athleticism with more creativity and skill, we will advance to another level."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.