Hispanic indentity and US Soccer (Part 2)
When I say the name Jose Torres, what comes to mind? How would you describe him?
Most couldn’t describe him at all, because for all but regular soccer fans, Jose Torres is still an unknown. For those who know him, the term tidy may come to mind, an allusion to his passing. Some would describe him as technical – soccer’s general euphemism for a skilled player – while others see the five-foot-five midfielder as diminutive or weak.
In a well-balanced blog post on the midfielder, The Shin Guardian came up with three titles – “Player," "Representative," and "Conductor” – labels ascribing hope to those vague visions.
The discussion surrounding Torres drifts from the age-old skill-versus-size debate to the one which projects so many wishes for the US’s future onto the 23-year-old, yet what interests me most are comments that he plays like a Mexican.
When I asked you to describe Torres, did the term "American" enter your mind? Toss away tall or short, strong or weak, technically gifted or unskilled clod. Anywhere in this discussion of Torres, did you think American? If so, how soon? And why?
Texas-born Jose Francisco Torres made his debut for the US National Team in 2008, two years after being lured into Pachuca's youth system. (Photo: Getty Images)
Of course, as a player for the US Men's National Team, Torres’s nationality could already be an innocuous assumption in your mind. Nevertheless, it's a confusing era for chicanos and Hispanic Americans with dual nationalities. As fly-over country and border states pass purportedly neutral laws that in reality only affect a predominantly Hispanic portion of their population, many chicanos feel less American than ever; or, at least, less loved.
Everyday on the news, folks yell about immigration and how the law is being broken. We respond ‘but you wrote the law. And you could re-write it, if you wanted to.’ But you don't. Many only see their white stars on the American flag.
Neutrality excludes us in other ways, including on the playing field. In the world of US soccer, lots of scribes point to the decades-old trend of pay-to-play soccer as a source of exclusion. The theory is that the top youth soccer teams require suburban sugar daddy parents with deep pockets to pay coach fees and travel expenses. While part of this assertion rings true, it's important not to allow superficial judgments to mask over lingering and hidden prejudices. Is it mere coincidence that pay-to-play has excluded Hispanics? Or has the myth of the Poor Mexican greased the wheels of prejudice, causing coaches and clubs to have shorter leashes with Hispanic parents in arrears on payments? It may be a bit of both.
So, with that background, how do Hispanics start to become a part of the United States soccer scene? And how does US Soccer become a larger part of Hispanics' sporting life?
As we search for the answer, there is a real danger of tokenism. The US could overreact to current failings, accept possession soccer as a be-all-end-all, and brashly recruit and develop too many short and technical players, possibly of Hispanic heritage. It is a gross over-simplification to think a team of Mexican-Americans can form a mini-Spain in a decade's time. We should never forget our current success in producing top goalkeepers, powerful center backs, and athletic attackers.
Vision is important. The goal must be more than going out and poaching talent from the Hispanic population. This could work beautifully on the field, but it would replicate the errors of the NBA model, substituting poor Hispanics for poor blacks.
One of the prominent figures in US Soccer, technical director (and former national team captain) Claudio Reyna, has presented a coaching curriculum that hopes to focus on player development, minimize the importance of winning and losing, and instill the fundamentals of possession soccer. A commitment to possession soccer, without going overboard, could open the door for the next other Paco Torres to get a fair look from coaches. As our collective soccer IQ improves, the equality of opportunity should improve, both in terms of identifying technical players, but also teaching technique to our beloved super-athletes.
Nobody wants affirmative action. Nobody wants quotas. People just want a genuinely fair shot to play.
And call me stupid, evil, or both, but I believe that capitalism will eventually win. Once US youth academies start to realize profits off the sale of players, they will cast aside the win-for-soccer-mom-today culture and focus on polishing diamonds. Many of these diamonds will be Hispanic (call me conceited, too). Whether that's good for society at large is another matter. Obviously, reducing the pay-to-play emphasis will help all talented poor players, including Hispanics.
Of course, the culture question rears its head. Do Americans change our alleged static, preexisting identity to accommodate Hispanics? Or should Hispanics assimilate? The answer depends on how you view America - as a melting pot of influences, or a mixed salad with various races sprinkled about.
The most basic question, linguistic - often framed as Spanish versus English - seems to have a simple answer: bilingualism. MLS has done its part to establish roots with Sueno MLS, a nationally televised player talent search program akin to American Idol. US Soccer's website is also available En Espanol. While I feel a tinge of sadness for the prior generations of mono-lingual Americans, in today's world, solutions abound. You can probably find a translation app on your smartphone, or a simple request for speaking your language can probably be accommodated by bilingual bystanders.
And the notion of Hispanic identity needs further clarification. Many American fans were outraged at the behavior of Mexican fans at the US Gold Cup final, yet we laugh and point as Lady Gaga pours alcohol on bystanders at an American football game. The most painful part about the Gold Cup final is that obvious stadium security problems are pointed out, yet the Myth of the Drunken Mexican pervaded the discourse in the worst way. While behavior of those despicable fans was inexcusable, the stadium security and police deserve a huge lump of blame. Also, the Rose Bowl, the stadium which hosted the final, did open in 1922 and may no longer be ideal. Most importantly, all the accusations were of actions that are both predictable and preventable. And, unlike the innocent American past time of baseball, nobody came close to killing anybody.
Hispanics also come in different shapes and sizes. Believe it or not, El Salvadorans are not Mexicans. In fact, their country is about the size of a US state, so when their national team plays, it's more akin to seeing your birth state's college basketball team making the NCAA Final Four. The connection is more intimate, and the event probably more special. Within the Mexican community, we have our own words for US-born - chicano/a; Mexican-born but assimilated - pocho/a (be careful - it's got a negative tinge); and even white folk - guero/a (no negative connotation). And, contrary to popular belief, we are not Honduran.
Clearly, there are potential hurdles, but I'm optimistic Hispanic inclusion, even if progress will be piecemeal. The biggest concern is the underlying assumptions. Why we do something is just as important as how. A moral compass must always guide us, even if we think we know North from South. We live in one of the greatest nations on Earth, yet the CEOs of our businesses look across the Rio Grande with lust in their hearts and profit in their minds. Why the avarice? Even one hundred years later, it’s all comes down to the people.
But for US soccer, those people are already here. Asking how US soccer can include Hispanics confuses the issue. Rather, we should ask why and how Hispanics have been excluded. It's never too late to re-align the goalposts and give all Americans a fair shot. The right wing (and left) points to heated US-Mexico games to paint us as unpatriotic, somehow lesser Americans. But we're American. We're people.
We are US soccer. And many would and will give blood, sweat, and tears to proudly don the red, white, and blue.