US Soccer Is Neglecting Latino Talent—and It Shows

US Soccer Is Neglecting Latino Talent—and It Shows

US Soccer Is Neglecting Latino Talent—and It Shows

There are millions of youths playing soccer in the United States. So why is the men’s national team so terrible?


A group of young soccer players loaded into two vans on a sunny fall day in 2018, and made their way from their hotel to a nearby sports complex in Ontario, California. The preparations to welcome the 36 potential stars were in place: a trailer for staff and volunteers; tents for coaches, scouts, and club representatives; and designated sections for medical staff and family members. On the sidelines, a camera was ready to record the exhibition game, where the players would compete to gain the attention of scouts. There was even a balloon arch for them to walk under as they stepped onto the pitch.

The players were mostly US-born Latinos in their late teens, and they traveled—all expenses paid—from nearly a dozen US states. They began to stretch and warm up: jogging, passing to each other, and taking shots on goal. When they were done, Rafa Calderon, a staff member with Alianza de Futbol, the group organizing the five-day soccer showcase, called them together. “This is your time, enjoy it!” he told them. “You are here because you belong here. You earned it.”

The players stepped off the field. Then, along with their opponents from the youth development academy Real So Cal, they walked in parallel lines under the balloons back to the center of the field, where they shook hands with the referees and kicked off the match.

Among those watching were representatives from 13 clubs in the Liga MX, Mexico’s professional soccer league, and two from the Mexican Football Federation (FMF), the sport’s governing body in Mexico.

“Within the first day, I’ve already identified three players [who] are really interesting,” said José Luis Real, the sports development and youth academy director of the Mexican soccer club Toluca and a former Mexican national team coach. “As of yesterday, I could have booked a flight back home and considered my job done.”

Mexican clubs and even the Mexican men’s national team have routinely recruited players promoted by Alianza de Futbol, a San Francisco Bay Area–based organization dedicated to the development of Hispanic amateur soccer. They include Edwin Lara, a US-born player who played for Mexico’s under-17 Mexican national team (before later making a nationality switch to the US team), and Jonathan Gonzalez, another Mexican-American player who was recruited by the Liga MX club Monterrey and played for the US men’s U-15 team.

US Soccer Hall of Famer Hugo Pérez watched the players intently from the sidelines. He was impressed. There players “have good qualities and potential to play at a higher level,” Pérez told me. “Alianza is the best organization in the country for helping all the soccer communities, especially the Latinos.”

And for the second time in the national showcase’s six-year history, the US Soccer Federation—known simply as US Soccer, the country’s official governing body—sent scouts, according to Alianza.

“The history was that there’s been very little communication. I would call once or twice a year just to remind them that we’re out here,” said Brad Rothenberg, an Alianza de Futbol cofounder. US Soccer had sent scouts to some of Alianza’s local tryout events, said Rothenberg. But rarely sent anyone in an official capacity to the marquee showcase. “There’s never been a real concerted interest,” he said.

US Soccer disputes Alianza’s characterization that it has been ignoring the organization, and says they have sent personnel to various events over the years.

“The history was that there’s been very little communication. I would call once or twice a year just to remind them that we’re out here,” said Brad Rothenberg, an Alianza de Futbol cofounder. US Soccer had sent scouts to some of Alianza’s local tryout events, said Rothenberg. But until last year it had never sent anyone in an official capacity to the marquee showcase. “There’s never been a real concerted interest,” he said.

Rothenberg—the son of Alan Rothenberg, who headed US Soccer in the 1990s—told me that US Soccer has ignored Hispanic players, coaches, and scouts for years, creating a diversity problem that’s entrenched in the highest echelons of the sport. A 2014 study of USMNT players by journalist Roger Bennett and University of Chicago economics professor Greg Kaplan showed that US men’s national team (USMNT) players from the previous two decades were more likely to come from higher-income, white families than top American basketball and football players during the same period. The study was never published, though Bennett discussed some of the findings on a podcast.

The 2019 USMNT Gold Cup roster of 23 players included four Latino and seven black players, making the roster almost half-minority, whereas the 1994 World Cup roster of 22 players included five Latino and only two black players, according to data provided by US Soccer. While, on the surface, this signals an improvement, major talent pools from which USMNT recruits remain disproportionately white when it comes to homegrown talent.

Data obtained by The Nation and Type Investigations from Alianza de Futbol shows that for the 2018 season only 7 percent of players in Major League Soccer are US-born Latinos and 11 percent are US-born black players. There is a higher percentage of international players of color in the MLS, but they aren’t eligible to play on the USMNT. In 2017, about 38 percent of the league’s players were eligible to play for the USMNT, according to ESPN FC.

“It’s an excellent exercise of improving but not getting any better,” said Paul Gardner, a columnist at Soccer America. “One of the reasons is that we are not using the full repertoire of talent that’s available to us.”

I interviewed more than two dozen people connected with soccer in the United States, including former US Soccer officials, former USMNT players, Mexican national team coaches, US youth club coaches and staff, teenage players, and sports writers. Nearly everyone agreed: A big part of the reason the USMNT doesn’t benefit from “the full repertoire of talent,” especially top black and Latino players, is that American soccer scouts, coaches, and officials neglect youth clubs and leagues that are not affiliated with US Soccer. Instead, USMNT recruiters focus their efforts on exclusive development academies and pay-to-play youth soccer clubs and leagues, which are more likely to have white, higher-income players.

Scouts scouring the United States for talent have a difficult job: They are limited in number, and work in a continent-sized country. According to US Soccer, there are 90 part-time scouts distributed throughout the US working with boys. They report to three full-time scouts. Neil Buethe, US Soccer’s chief communications officer, wrote in an e-mail that one of the full-time scouts was a native Spanish speaker of Argentine descent, and 20 of the 90 part-time scouts spoke Spanish, though he couldn’t say how many were Latino. “We typically have at least one Spanish-speaking scout in each of the major markets,” said Buethe. He added that there were three part-time Spanish-speaking scouts each in southern California, Texas, New York/New Jersey, and Florida. Buethe did not break down the ethnicities of the on-the-ground scouts further.

Critics insist this is not enough to reach beyond the familiar networks of wealthier teams and leagues. By not hiring enough scouts from immigrant and minority communities, they say, US Soccer officials have failed to find and develop more talent from working-class communities of color.

“My feeling about the future prospects of the United States in world soccer is that it ought to be better than anybody,” said Gardner, who has written on the neglect of Latino talent in American soccer for more than 30 years. In addition to financial resources and a large population, he explained, the United States has millions of youth who play soccer, especially in immigrant communities of color. “The only country that comes close to us is Brazil…and the Brazilians have managed to come up with some sort of soccer that allows a place for everybody,” he said.

In October 2017, when the men’s national team, ranked 28 in the world, lost to Trinidad and Tobago, ranked 99, American soccer fans were crushed. For the first time since 1986, the United States had failed to qualify for the World Cup—and all they needed was a draw. One publication dubbed the match “the worst loss in the history of US men’s soccer.”

“In other countries, when that happens, it’s [time to] clean house,” Pérez said.

After the loss to Trinidad and Tobago, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati decided he would not run for reelection. But in the first contested US Soccer presidential election in nearly two decades, US Soccer membership elected Carlos Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Gulati’s vice president.

US Soccer officials say they have long-term plans in place. Buethe wrote in an e-mail that they’re “increasing the number of scouts in our Talent Identification Department, finding more touchpoints at the grassroots levels with youth clubs, restructuring our coaching license pathway, [and] working more closely with our Member Organizations.”

Still many critics fear that US Soccer hasn’t reformed. The USMNT U23 failed to qualify for two consecutive Olympic Games, in 2012 and 2016. After a loss to Mexico in this year’s Gold Cup final, and with the United States cohosting the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, the calls to transform how American soccer is managed have grown louder. Then, on October 15, the US lost 2-0 to Canada, the first time Canada had defeated the USMNT in 34 years.

“Failing to qualify for the World Cup is a symptom rather than the problem itself,” said former USMNT midfielder Kyle Martino, now an NBC Sports analyst who ran against Cordeiro. “The failure is the byproduct of a top-down strategy; it’s trickle-down soccer.”

Contrary to those that dismiss the game as un-American, soccer isn’t a recent import. Working-class English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants brought the game to New England in the 1880s, and a successful professional league operated between 1921 and 1932. The United States even finished third in the inaugural World Cup in 1930. The Great Depression and World War II, however, put a halt to the game’s growth, and it nearly disappeared in this country outside of urban, ethnic, and immigrant communities. There was a brief revival after the 1950 World Cup, when the US national team shocked everyone by beating the favorite, England, in the first round.

At this time, like in much of the rest of the world, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds mostly played soccer informally, Gregory Reck, co-author of American Soccer: History, Culture, Class, explained to me. This, he said, began to change in the late 1950s and 1960s with the rise of collegiate soccer and in the 1970s with the proliferation of expensive youth soccer programs. This is when the game became largely a middle- and upper-class sport among white Americans.

“So the view that soccer is ‘recent’ is due to the fact that it is recent for the socioeconomic class that occupies the bulk of the [organized] soccer landscape today,” Reck said.

It also explains how most players made it to the USMNT. “The national teams were recruited through the development pipeline: pay-to-play youth soccer, university soccer, and then pro and national team,” Reck said. “It limited access to those players coming from families with financial and cultural capital.”

Add to this that coaches from Northern Europe, especially England and Scotland, have had a tremendous influence on soccer in the United States. Traditionally, English soccer focused less on the technical skills, creativity, and imaginative play associated with Latin American soccer and more on physical strength. For decades, England-trained coaches dominated the ranks of American youth soccer, with a later influx of coaches from Germany and the Netherlands. Because Latin American players, coaches, and staff played a different style of game, the US soccer establishment never invested in developing these individuals, explained Mike Woitalla, the executive director of Soccer America: “They almost had a disdain for it.”

As chair of US Soccer’s now dormant Diversity Task Force from 2008 until 2015, Doug Andreassen saw another problem: Soccer officials, particularly those with state youth associations, failed to even recognize that anything was wrong. “They thought if the Latinos wanted to play, if the kids that were from Nigeria wanted to play, they could play. Well, that was far from the case,” he said.

The inability to acknowledge the barriers faced by many young players of color, according to Andreassen, applies to many at the highest levels of US Soccer: “I’m not sure anybody in US Soccer understood there was a problem either. That’s not to say their intentions were not good, but the intentions and understanding the issue are two different things.”

One hurdle, Andreassen said, is access. By the 1960s, USMNT players typically came from university soccer powerhouses like Saint Louis University and, later, the University of Virginia. More recently, most players either climbed the ladder of USMNT youth teams or were recruited from Major League Soccer or a foreign league.

According to US Soccer, currently 90 percent of its youth national teams come from the US Soccer Development Academy, a league composed of youth academies and clubs from various organizations. And about 70–80 percent of those players come from the MLS academies. Most of the rest are based internationally. When asked about the demographic breakdown of male US Soccer–affiliated youth clubs, US Soccer didn’t have an answer. “For the most part, our members do not track demographics, and we do not have that information,” wrote Buethe.

The families of youths who play for competitive soccer clubs, explained Andreassen, pay fees that can range as high as $5,000 to $17,000 per season. At IMG Academy, whose alumni include former USMNT player Landon Donovan, it can cost nearly $80,000 a year if you’re boarding.

According to the Census Bureau, the median household income for Hispanics in 2018 was $51,450, well below the overall median of $63,179 and the $70,642 median for whites. That same year, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported that only 28 percent of families involved in soccer had incomes below $50,000. More than a third of soccer families had household incomes above $100,000.

There have been some remedies; for example, most MLS development academies are free, which has likely led to improvement in Latino and black player representation in USMNT youth teams. Still, the number of kids in these academies is limited.

“They still only represent a small percentage of placement options for the huge number of youth players,” said Rothenberg. “At the lowest age groups, black and Latino kids are not being developed for elite competition.”

According to US Soccer’s media kit, there are 3.7 million kids playing soccer today in these registered leagues. But Andreassen estimates that there are an additional 10 to 14 million kids playing in unaffiliated leagues, often denigrated as “pirate leagues.” (US Soccer could not speak to the accuracy of Andreassen’s estimate. Buethe said US Soccer scouts have contacts in unaffiliated leagues, and that anyone can send videos to scouts through email.) These range from teams run by a local YMCA to the numerous immigrant leagues. “There are whole sections of our country that have leagues that are just Latino,” Andreassen said.

One problem, he said, is that US Soccer largely works through volunteers and underpaid staff. Even Andreassen’s old position as chair of the Diversity Task Force was unpaid. He said that before the Diversity Task Force was put on what now appears to be a permanent hiatus, he told US Soccer leadership to “take this out of the hands of volunteers” and hire a permanent diversity officer like other major sports organizations.

In an e-mail, Buethe said that US Soccer hired Tonya Wallach as its “first Chief Talent & Inclusion Officer in August 2017 to lead our Diversity & Inclusion efforts.” Despite repeated requests, US Soccer did not make Wallach available for an interview.

When asked about the Diversity Task Force, Buethe said the original Task Force, which Andreassen headed, had “met its strategic goal.” He also pointed to a new diversity and inclusion working group that is part of the Youth Soccer Task Force. “They are charged with recommending and implementing practical ways to provide more opportunities for inclusion and to encourage more diversity among players, coaches, referees, and administrators,” he explained.

Yet of the 60 people on the Youth Soccer Task Force, only two are Hispanic, including US Soccer president Cordeiro, and neither of them come from soccer backgrounds, according to Woitalla.

Buethe said US Soccer “acknowledged that we should have included more Latinos as part of the Youth Task Force working groups,” adding that they are “actively working to add additional individuals to rectify the situation.”

“It is really stunning that this happened,” Woitalla said. “It also shows me how unattached the leadership is.”

Another issue is the lack of enough Latino US Soccer–licensed coaches with the cultural competence and skills to recruit talented players of color. US Soccer did not have an answer about the backgrounds of licensed coaches.

“There is a ceiling for Latino coaches,” Woitalla said. One obstacle, he explained, is that the required licenses to coach higher-level teams or national teams are costly and can take a long time to get. Right now, former USMNT star Tab Ramos is the only Latino coach for a USMNT youth team.

A similar problem exists in the MLS. A study by Alianza de Futbol obtained by The Nation found that for the 2018 season, 19 of the 23 MLS teams had a white head coach, with just four teams headed by Latino coaches. Looking more broadly at the technical staffs, the picture is even more stark: According to Alianza’s analysis, there were only three US-born Latino and three US-born black technical staff members in the entire league. That’s less than 5 percent of all MLS technical staff, which includes assistant coaches, trainers, and other coaching staff.

Pérez said he believes that there are not enough decision-makers in US Soccer who are “prepared and equipped” to reach out to Latinos. Scouts, Pérez argues, should be familiar with the communities they target and their issues of concern. For many Latinos, that might be citizenship and residency status, as the cases of Lizandro Claros Saravia and his brother Diego illustrate.

Promising teenage players from Germantown, Maryland, the Claros Saravia brothers came to the United States from El Salvador as undocumented children. One of Lizandro’s former coaches at Bethesda Soccer Club, a top youth club, described him as “one of the best [center-backs] in the country.” In 2017 Lizandro won a soccer scholarship to play and attend Louisburg College in North Carolina. But Lizandro and Diego arrived in the country in 2009—two years too late to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the Obama-era immigration policy that would’ve allowed them to receive work permits and deferments from deportation. Lizandro was originally granted a stay of removal in 2013, but it lasted only a year, and subsequent applications were denied. Though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knew he and his brother were in the country illegally, they were considered low-priority by the Obama administration because of their clean records. When Lizandro informed the authorities that he was leaving for North Carolina during a routine check in, ICE detained both Lizandro and Diego. Five days later, they were deported.

It is stories like these that make many families with undocumented members hesitant to enroll their children in formal soccer programs. Former US Soccer president Alan Rothenberg said, “When people ask me, ‘When will the US win the World Cup?’ I tell them, ‘When we have comprehensive immigration reform.’”

Pérez understands firsthand the challenges that young, talented players from immigrant communities face. He migrated to the United States from El Salvador with his family when he was 11, and got his start in the early 1980s playing in the North American Soccer League, the now defunct professional soccer league that predated Major League Soccer. He went on to play for the USMNT, and participated in the 1984 Olympics and 1994 World Cup. Pérez was a technical adviser and scout for US Soccer from 2008 to 2015, and he coached US men’s youth teams from 2012 to 2014.

During his tenure, Pérez said he presented a plan to US Soccer that sought to move away from what he described as a “tentative style” to a more attacking style of play. He wanted US Soccer to bring in young players from outside of the academy system and recruit talented players from immigrant leagues. To do this, every month for three years, he established free training centers to scout talent.

Pérez said that when he met with players and coaches from unaffiliated leagues, “People would say, ‘Wow, we’re glad you came because for years nobody has come.’”

While recognizing that there are not enough scouts, Pérez said that US Soccer has a responsibility to look outside of affiliated leagues. He also said his work as a scout was boosted by the fact that he spoke Spanish and was familiar with Latino culture. It helped him ease the concerns, answer questions, and persuade the parents of potential players to consider a future in American soccer.

Among the promising players Pérez discovered was Jonathan Gonzalez of Santa Rosa, California. A local coach recommended Gonzalez, and Pérez invited the young player to one of his training sessions.

“His IQ of soccer was advanced for his age, very technical, excellent character, has excellent manners, very coachable, could play different positions,” Pérez said.

Gonzalez was born in the United States to Mexican immigrants. When he was 14, his performance at Alianza de Futbol’s showcase in 2013 landed him offers to join the youth teams of 13 Liga MX teams. He would also start for a number of USMNT’s youth teams coached by Pérez.

In 2014, however, Pérez’s work coaching the US U-15 team came to an end. Speaking for the first time publicly on the topic, he said he was told more than once not to speak Spanish to Latino players, and that his continued use of Spanish on the field may have contributed to him being let go. “I did it a couple of times when I saw coaches from the opposite team so they wouldn’t understand me,” he explained. “I felt I had the advantage if the other team didn’t understand the directions I was giving.”

Pérez said the order came from the top of US Soccer. Two sources, who asked not to be named out of fear retaliation, confirmed that Pérez spoke to them at the time about the request from US Soccer officials to not speak Spanish with players during matches or training.

Pérez said he ignored the requests and that no one explained to him why there was an objection other than, “This was a US national team.” In fact, he said he had heard former coach Jürgen Klinsmann speak German to German-born American players during a senior USMNT training session.

He said he never made an official complaint because he didn’t think US Soccer “would change their stance.”

“Of everything that happened, that was the saddest thing…. It made me feel unappreciated.”

In an e-mailed response, Buethe denied that Pérez’s usage of Spanish contributed to his termination: “There were other factors that contributed to the decision,” adding later, “This was a collaborative decision within US Soccer.” He stated that there is no policy against speaking Spanish or any other language, writing, “at times, Youth National Team and even senior National Team coaches, will speak to players in other languages one-on-one, but the key is making sure that coaches are getting messages across to all their players in the most effective and efficient manner.”

In 2017, when neither the USMNT U-20 nor the senior team invited Gonzalez to their camps, even though he was playing professionally, he felt snubbed. “US Soccer was not taking me seriously,” he told me.

A year later, he made the switch and played for Mexico, utilizing the FIFA rule that allows a dual-national player to change nationality just once.

“Here we are sitting on all this talent and not using it,” Gardner said, adding explicit language. “That’s worse than a scandal; it’s an outrage.”

Some soccer analysts in America have suggested looking into the experiences of countries like France and Germany. Both national teams rebuilt their squads after episodes of failure by restructuring their scouting and youth programs to reach young talent in working-class and immigrant areas. The results have been resoundingly successful, with Germany winning the World Cup in 2014, and France in 2018.

“This should have been done 20 years ago,” Gardner said in frustration.

In the meantime, more US-born Latino players are finding their way to other countries. Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Angel Avalos—two of the most promising players who participated in Alianza de Futbol’s showcase in 2018—have been recruited by Mexican national youth teams. In September 2019, Pérez accepted a position as a scout for Mexico’s youth teams.

Pérez insisted that he holds no grudges toward US Soccer, but said it must do a better job at reaching out to underserved communities of color.

The USMNT, Pérez said, can’t wait for the next stars from immigrant communities to just pop up: “US Soccer needs to go to them.”

UPDATE: The piece has been updated to reflect additional comments from US Soccer and to correct an error; in addition to 2018, US Soccer sent a scout to the Alianza showcase in 2013, according to Alianza.

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