Some say it costs parents more money to develop their children as players in the United States because of the fees, for uniforms, leagues and referees, while Mexican clubs rarely ask for similar money upfront. Others say it actually costs more to get a talented player noticed in Mexico because there is still a prevalent culture of quid pro quo, in which coaches accept, or even solicit, money from players or their families in exchange for help in moving the player up the soccer ladder.
In places like El Paso, these sorts of dichotomies are constant. About 2.5 million people live in this region, and thousands cross the border every day for work or school, or to shop or see a doctor. “Home” may be on one side of the border, but family members often live on the other. Signs in stores are in English and Spanish. Conversations float between the two, and many Mexican-Americans speak with a crossover vocabulary.
Mexicans often refer to more extreme instances of this kind of Spanish as “pocho,” or inauthentic, and also use the term as a derogatory way to describe Americanized Mexicans who speak better English than Spanish. David Dorado Romo, an author and historian from El Paso, said the phrase “ni aquí ni allá” — neither here nor there — is a popular sentiment for residents of the border area, and it can inform every decision, including those about soccer.
“A lot of us feel that the border is an entirely different country — that we’re not accepted completely by Mexicanos, and in the U.S. it’s like an occupied country for us,” Romo said. “We feel like we’re from both sides. And that’s why a lot of people refuse to choose sides definitively when it comes to just about anything.”
A Training Ground
The duality is perpetual. Lalo Salgado, who was born in Mexico, lives in El Paso and commutes to work in Juárez. Salgado’s son, Omar, was a talented soccer player from a young age. Scouts from clubs on each side of the border identified his talent early on, and at 14 he left El Paso for Guadalajara, the home of Chivas, one of Mexico’s biggest clubs.
Lalo Salgado was torn, excited for his son to have an opportunity with Chivas — a dream for any Mexican father — but also concerned about sending his boy so far away. Every day, Omar would call Lalo at 8 a.m. as he approached a particularly busy street that he had to cross to get to the training field.
“Dad, I’m crossing the street,” he would say into the phone. Then there would be silence. Then: “O.K., I crossed. Talk to you later.” At 5 p.m., the same call would mark the moment Omar reversed the trip.
“Then, a few hours later at night, he would call crying,” Salgado recalled. “He was a boy away from home. And for Americanized boys, it is hard to go into those situations.”
Omar’s reaction was not atypical. In general, the conditions at Mexican youth academies are challenging. Competition is merciless — one coach here recalled a 13-year-old who was sent home after only three days because he had sprained an ankle — and the living situation in a team’s Casa Club, or clubhouse, is rarely luxurious, with players sometimes living a dozen to a room.
There is also a sentiment, still espoused by many talent evaluators at clubs around the world, that Mexico is a better training ground for a player.
“We all look at Mexico as a trampoline — if you can play here, you can play anywhere,” said Joel Burrola, who grew up in Juárez and plays professionally there. “I don’t know if people think the same about the U.S.A.”
A U.S. Advantage
Fernando Clavijo, not surprisingly, disagrees. Clavijo is the technical director for F.C. Dallas, which is generally regarded as the most progressive team in M.L.S. when it comes to cultivating a relationship with Mexican-American youth players.
According to Clavijo, nearly half of the roughly 225 players in F.C. Dallas’s academy — which includes teams from under 10 to under 18 — are Mexican-American, and many come from the club’s nine feeder affiliates in places like El Paso and Laredo, and even Monterrey, across the Mexican border. A steady stream of homegrown players has allowed F.C. Dallas to maintain its place as one of the league’s most successful teams — it had the best record in M.L.S. this season — without having to pay bloated salaries to imported players.
Very often, Clavijo has to visit with families of players who have been recruited by teams from each side of the border and face a decision. Clavijo said his sales pitch was simple: We offer a better way of life.
Players at F.C. Dallas’s academy who are from out of town live with families who act as surrogates, helping with scheduling needs and offering support with school and anything else. Players train in the morning and attend school together. Assistance with college preparation and recruiting is provided. So are meals and transportation.
“We offer an American education, a stronger family structure, a more stable environment,” Clavijo said. “At the younger age, we don’t know if they’re going to make it. We don’t know if they’re going to be pros. We don’t know any of that.”
He added: “I tell them: ‘You’re one injury away from never playing again. Where would you rather be if that happens?’ ”