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Fútbol in the USA

The U.S. national soccer team might have turned in some underwhelming performances in the past, but that’s changing.

En español | When a soccer game is on the line, you want Carlos Bocanegra anchoring your defense. Known for his savvy and stalwart play, Bocanegra wears the captain’s armband for the U.S. National Team. But he’s also an exception.

While recent top U.S. players, such as Hugo Pérez, Tab Ramos, and Claudio Reyna, are all Hispanic, Bocanegra is the only player of Latino descent who is a regular starter today. U.S. soccer leagues have taken note and want to change the playing field to score more Hispanics for the sport. Bocanegra could serve as inspiration.

Growing up in Southern California, Bocanegra excelled in sports, and his father was sure the boy had a bright future in baseball or football. Then Carlos earned a soccer scholarship to UCLA.

“[Carlos] told me, ‘You know, Dad, my best chance is in soccer,’" recalls" Manuel Bocanegra, 62, a retired school teacher. “Inside, I was going, ‘Oh, no!’ because I wanted him to play baseball.” He thought his son’s shot at pro sports was finished. At the time, there was no major soccer league in the United States, and playing overseas was unheard of. And although the elder Bocanegra was born in Mexico, where soccer reigns, he’d grown up in California playing traditional U.S. sports such as basketball and baseball. He hoped his son was making the right choice.

Today, under Bocanegra’s leadership, the U.S. National Team is quickly moving down the field toward its next goal: success at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  And major league soccer organizations are making their moves to win over Hispanic fans and recruit Latino players.

Wanted: Hispanic Fans and Players
Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation know they can’t have Hispanic fans without Hispanic players. “We certainly recognize the immense importance of fútbol in Hispanic culture,” says Nelson Rodríguez, senior vice president of MLS, the 14-year-old league where Bocanegra launched his pro career with the Chicago Fire. The most recent MLS league survey found that a third of its fan base is Latino; Rodríguez wants that number to grow.

A large, and very passionate, audience certainly seems to be there for the taking. About 80 percent of the 45 million U.S. Hispanics have ties to countries where soccer is the number one sport. Latinos tend to remain loyal to teams in their home countries, from Chivas Guadalajara in Mexico to Boca Juniors in Argentina. Mexican teams routinely play to sold-out stands when on U.S. soil; more than 93,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl last summer to see FC Barcelona play the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS; and when the U.S. National Team recently played El Salvador in a World Cup qualifying match in Utah, Salvadoran supporters outnumbered home-team fans.

Unfortunately, that passion doesn’t always cross over to U.S. teams, says Rodríguez, an Argentinean American. “There have been missed opportunities, things we could and need to do better,” he says, noting that the league is still relatively new. “These things take time....It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

Rodríguez points to recent developments—including a broadcasting deal with Univision and increasing coverage in Spanish-language media—as encouraging signs that MLS is catching on with Hispanics across the country. And details matter when it comes to creating an “authentic” experience for fans, he says, from making sure concession stands sell tacos and churros to supporting rituals such as drumming and flag-waving.

MLS hopes to score with high-profile outreach strategies such as launching Chivas USA in Los Angeles, a team that shares ownership with Chivas Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s top teams. Marquee players from Latin America have been signed, including Argentinean Guillermo Barros Schelotto of the Columbus Crew and Mexican Cuauhtémoc Blanco of the Chicago Fire. MLS also presents SuperLiga, a tournament between top U.S. and Mexico clubs.

Playing to traditionally tightly knit Latino families, many efforts are intergenerational, a strategy Rodríguez dubs “fùtbol y familia.” An amateur tournament called ¡MLS Futbolito! takes place in key markets across the country, with players ranging in age “from eight to 58,” Rodríguez says.

Scoring Goals With Latino Recruitment
U.S. Soccer also takes an offensive stance when it comes to developing stronger ties in Latino communities.

Hugo Salcedo, a Mexico native who played soccer for the U.S. National Team in the early seventies, says the game has changed a great deal since he was coming up as a player. As a child growing up in the United States, playing soccer brought taunts from the other kids, he recalls. And when he represented his adopted country at the 1972 Munich Olympics, U.S. Soccer was operating on a shoestring. “We used to get a $5 per diem,” he says, laughing at the memory.

“We’re going in the right direction now,” says Salcedo, who has worked with U.S. Soccer and MLS and is a consultant with FIFA, the international soccer governing body. “It’s very gratifying, and I hope to continue being a part of it.”

Even with movement down the recruitment and outreach field, Salcedo says socioeconomics poses a major obstacle for many Latino immigrant players in the United States. Without resources to play competitive youth soccer or go to college, their opportunities to develop as players can be limited.

With that in mind, U.S. Soccer is doing much more to scout and recruit youngsters in Latino communities, he says. MLS efforts to expand its fan base will attract more players too. Sueño MLS, a soccer reality show sponsored by the league and aired on Univision, has helped to find undiscovered talent, such as Jorge Flores, a Mexican American from Southern California who now plays for Chivas USA and the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team.

Progress in attracting Hispanics continues and is evident in the U.S. Men’s National Team player pool, which includes defender Jonathan Bornstein, whose mother is Mexican, and in the choices that younger players are making. In a positive recent development, several up-and-coming players who had the option to play for either Mexico or the United States have elected to play for the U.S. team.

About a third of the players on the U.S. Under-17 Men’s team now have Spanish surnames—a key sign that there could be future Hispanic stars in the pipeline. But there’s still a way to go. U-17 team head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who played in the World Cup for Colombia, is the only Latino serving as a head coach of a U.S. national youth team.

“The youth teams are opening doors to a lot of kids today,” Salcedo says. “The kids believe they have a chance....The opportunities are there now.”

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