When Landon Donovan‘s extra time strike against Algeria gave the United States a berth in the Round of 16 at the World Cup, it sent U.S. fans across the country into a frenzy. Before that thrilling moment, soccer — the greatest sport on the planet — had been largely snubbed by many in the United States. It’s entirely possible that once the World Cup is over, the game will go ignored once again.
But not by one devoted fan base: Latinos. First-generation immigrants and Latinos are more likely to follow soccer than their American-born counterparts, who mostly prefer baseball, basketball and American football. So it’s perplexing that the current national squad doesn’t include more Latino soccer stars.
Though in 1994, the United States national men’s soccer team had five starting Latinos in their World Cup squad, the numbers seem to have dwindled over the years, thanks in part to poor recruitment efforts.
Most of the time, recruiters aren’t going to inner-city barrios to scout. Instead, they’re looking for players who take the expensive youth club route that only the privileged can afford. For example, the highly esteemed goalkeeper Tim Howard, and even Donovan — the poster boy for U.S. team — grew up playing soccer in the suburbs.
Donovan laments that he remembers playing with Latino youth who were better than him as a youth, but due to lack of resources and privilege, they just never made it. Instead of getting recruited while in high school or college, many probably ended up playing football in the United States armed forces in Iraq.
Accordingly, while Latinos make up 33% of the Major League fan base, few U.S.-born Latino youth come up through the ranks. Take Herculez Gomez or Jose Torres, two prominent Latinos who are currently playing for the United States in South Africa. Both were born in the United States, but had to play their club football in Mexico to be recruited for the United States’ national team.
Still, there’s hope. The United States boasts one of the most diverse soccer teams in the world, with many stars who are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, is trying to reach potentially overlooked talent by rolling out pilot programs to recruit kids from inner-city areas. The Olympic Development Program regional all-star teams roster includes a lot of Latino names, as well. It may be just a matter of time before the United States recruits and cultivates a Pele, Maradona or Messi who grew up in the barrios.
Photo Credit: The U.S. Army