Flores makes the grade despite unusual background
CARSON, Calif. -- Jorge Flores might be the only reality-show winner in the world to claim that avenue as a path to a professional soccer career. Though it went under the radar of many because the program was a Spanish language production, "Sueno MLS" was a show that tested out around 2,000 hopefuls in rounds of trials before declaring Flores the winner in 2007, the inaugural year of the competition. They awarded him a youth contract and later upgraded that to a roster spot on the MLS team that hosted the event, Chivas USA.
"My case was actually similar," said Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez. "I went to try my luck with a team and that's what Jorge did."
Yet in the United States, due to few development options for the pro clubs, players usually advance in soccer first through the youth club system and then the college ranks. This route often prices out many otherwise viable talents.
Regardless of how he first came to the team, Flores quickly proved to Chivas USA that he was no mere gimmick. His promotion to the senior team resulted in one brief appearance in 2007, but he prepared hard for the 2008 season, waiting for his chance to contribute.
"The kid wants it," said Chivas USA coach Preki. "Ever since he came here last year I've always said he has a good mentality."
Typical of his character, Flores was unfazed that his new teammates referred to him by the name of the TV show.
"The truth is, it doesn't bother me," the midfielder acknowledged. "They've called me that since I first joined the team. Everybody asked, 'Who is he?' When they found out I was the one who won the show, they started calling me 'Sueno.' I didn't have a nickname before."
That focused mind-set is part of the tenacious nature of Flores.
"He has the will to succeed and he really wants to be good," said teammate Sacha Kljestan. "That's what makes the difference. He comes to work every day and he never gives up. He fights like he's going to die every day. It's like it's his last day at training. That's why I have a lot of respect for him, and that's why I think he's going to be successful."
Though Flores was born in the U.S., he soon moved to Mexico. In that country, "futbol" is the top sport by far and Flores was raised with the game, playing on local squads and honing his skill. When he returned to the U.S. at age 16, Flores found himself struggling to adjust.
"It's difficult," Flores said. "Learning a new language is especially complicated. The soccer is also different. It's faster and more physical."
Still, Flores succeeded with his high school team, and due to the encouragement of his uncle, decided to try out for "Sueno MLS."
"It wasn't easy, but I worked hard and I made it," the forward said.
If hard work seems to be the theme to Flores' success, boosting him up level by level, it's also a strategy that he intends to continue. After all, that's how he was noticed by Thomas Rongen, the U.S. U-20 coach. Flores' strong work ethic was also part of the reason the young player was named captain for a series of international matches versus such stiff competition as Argentina. Flores also produced on the field, with multiple goals and assists for the U-20s.
"We went to Argentina and then to Mexico and Portugal, and I did well." Flores said, proud to bear the captain's armband. "It was a surprise and an honor. You have more responsibility. It feels good to be recognized."
With the gritty reality of the consistently strong effort Flores put forth to advance, it's a bit misleading that his nickname on Chivas USA became "Sueno," Spanish for "dream." His teammates may have used the TV show's name as a gentle sort of tease at first, but Flores won their respect.
"When he first showed up, last year, you could tell that he had a good way about him and that his work rate was unbelievable," said Jesse Marsch. "We all recognized that early on, and I'm certainly proud of the success that he's had lately."
On May 18, Flores made his first game appearance of 2008 a memorable one, scoring his first league goal after coming on as a sub in a match versus D.C. United.
"My entire family was in the stadium and they were so excited," said Flores. "After the game, we went out to eat and celebrated."
Flores then went on a tear, scoring in the next two matches. He doesn't possess blinding speed or technically tricky moves, but Flores did not hesitate or doubt his shot whenever there was a chance to take it.
As unstoppable as Flores seemed on that streak, Preki could still see room for improvement.
"Can he get tactically a little bit better, can he find ways to play a little bit more than just staying in a very wide spot?" asked Preki. "That's a skill that we still need to work with him, but the kid is brave."
It was the play of Flores that helped Chivas USA turn things around after starting the season rather dismally. This gave the squad, which has failed to win a postseason match, new hope.
"I'd like to reach the final and play in a championship game," said Flores, looking ahead to the rest of the season.
He was also smart enough to take the advice of Chivas USA veterans on how to improve. Flores noted that he is close to both Marsch and Suarez, two of the club's most savvy players.
"He's half my age, and I tell him to always push himself to get better," said Suarez."This is the time to learn and improve a lot."
Since Suarez plays defense, though, Flores took a lot of his cues in the midfield from Marsch. In an interesting coincidence, Marsch also maintained a streak alongside Flores, scoring in all the same matches Flores did.
"[Marsch] helps me a lot with stuff on the field," Flores said. "He's always telling me to keep moving and where I should be."
The ultimate dream of Flores may take him far from MLS.
"Like a lot of players here, I'd like to play for a team in Europe one day," said Flores.
When Chivas USA first joined MLS in 2005, there was a lot of talk about how the team would represent the Hispanic community and reach out to Latino youth. However, the number of Latino players on the club has been reduced drastically since that year. Still, some could see Flores as the culmination of the team's stated purpose that season -- to involve more Latino players and discover new ones.
Others don't see it that way at all.
"I don't think our team even has the most Hispanic players now," said Suarez. "I think that shows the true ability of Flores. Preki looks at who can help the team. He doesn't care about what country or nation you're from, as long as you can help the team. That's why Flores is on the field."
A dream shot at a pro career may have come from a TV program, but the effectiveness of Flores could have his club dreaming about a playoff run. Some luck is gifted, but some is earned.
"The ball is bouncing his way," said Preki of Flores. "And not just the ball is bouncing his way, he's finishing it. He has one or two shots and he puts the ball in the net. Give him credit, he still works hard. Good for him."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.