Do big cities hold the key to American soccer’s future?

ESPN's Mónica González with United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann during last year's Mexico-U.S. World Cup qualifier at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

You probably know Mónica González as a sideline reporter for ESPN’s U.S. national team and Major League Soccer broadcasts. You may also know her as a former star for Mexico’s women’s national team.

But González’s ties to the game run a lot deeper than that. She runs a soccer academy in Chicago called Gonzo Soccer that’s for inner-city girls between eight and 16 years old. As you might imagine, there’s as much teaching of life skills as there is of soccer.

The academy is just the latest step on a career path that has already been impressively diverse. González grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, played college soccer at Notre Dame, and now lives in Mexico City. Her connection to Chicago was formed not only by Notre Dame, but also by playing for the city’s USL W-League team in 2009.

González was one of the featured speakers on a panel at the NSCAA Convention that discussed the growth of soccer in America’s urban areas. The seminar was headlined "U.S. Soccer's Manifest Destiny: The Urban Center as the Final Frontier,” and that might not be too much of an overstatement.

As González told the panel, Jurgen Klinsmann told her in an interview she did for ESPN last year that he is intent on mining cities for the kind of talent that historically has not turned to soccer.

Or, I should say, American soccer. Because we are no longer just having the classic debate over when the next Allen Iverson will pick soccer over basketball. Now there is a huge conversation about the children of Hispanic immigrants in America. It is no small question to ask whether they will grow up wanting to play for - and in - the U.S. or their native country.

Union fans know well that this matter was thrust into a hot spotlight recently, when Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul bought Michael Farfan. The club also signed U.S. under-20 national team star José Villarreal on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Since Villarreal isn’t cap-tied to this side of the Rio Grande yet, it’s possible that if Cruz Azul develops him well enough, he could declare for El Tri. 

What a stick in the eye that would be to MLS and the U.S. national team player development system.

We also know well that there is over a century of soccer history in the Philadelphia region. But in recent times, much of that history has been written at our well-funded suburban youth clubs: FC Delco, Yardley-Makefield Soccer, and so forth. The Union’s academy has made strides into the city, with promising forward Darius Madison as an example. But the program is still too new to have had a significant impact.

The Union’s academy happens to be growing at a time when our region’s Hispanic population is booming. U.S. Census data show that in the city alone, the Hispanic community grew by about 30 percent from 2007 to 2012.

Who’s to say that the next José Villarreal or Michael Farfan can’t come from right here in our back yard?

Obviously, it is a hugely complex question to answer. And I think Philadelphia has a role to play, because we are in the fifth-largest (for now) city in the country.

It is a question that we shouldn’t ignore. And I know that it isn’t being ignored. But still, at times I wonder: There are plenty of youth soccer players that we do know, but what about the soccer players we don’t know?

The more we look for an answer, the more the greater American soccer community lives up to truly being the greater American soccer community.

So back to the seminar, because I want to tell a little story I picked up from it.

In addition to the panelists, there were some heavy hitters in the audience too. At one point during the seminar, we broke out into small group discussions. A man sat down next to me and identified himself as “Bob from Denver.” I looked at his nametag, and quickly realized that this was no ordinary Bob. It was Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia, the man who preceded Sunil Gulati as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

I’m sure many of you know his name. For those that don’t, he ran the show from 1998 to 2006. That span included the women’s national team’s 1999 World Cup triumph, the men’s national team’s 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run, and the successful hosting on short notice of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Not surprisingly, he asked some pointed questions of the people in our group. Most of them had stories to tell about programs they work with in their home towns. Contiguglia wanted to know about their long-term sustainability. He wanted to know what avenues there were for players to develop at certain age points, both on and off the field. And he wanted to know about ends, not just means.

I sat back and listened. Though Contiguglia wasn’t meant to be the moderator at the table, he took the conversation in a very useful direction.

That was the first time I had ever met Contiguglia. I don’t claim to know him, and we didn’t talk any after the seminar. But I have known González for a little while, and I approached her when the panel wrapped up to do an interview. She was happy to oblige. And I came away from it more optimistic about American soccer’s future than I was when I entered the room.

As I was listening to the seminar, I was thinking about how Mexican clubs have gotten into southern California and made it appealing for kids to play professionally south of the border.

And then you have Club Tijuana, which has signed lots of Americans in recent years, such as U.S. national team regulars Hérculez Gómez and Joe Corona. They also beat the Los Angeles Galaxy to top prospect Paul Arriola. As a result, they've got a big fan base in San Diego and L.A.

Now we are starting to see players in Mexico’s national team system who were born in the United States, such as San Jose native Isaác Brizuela. What’s your perspective on how this dynamic has evolved?

Well, there’s example I can give you that I was going to mention here but didn’t have enough time. Brad Rothenberg, Alan Rothenberg’s son,* runs a group called Alianza de Futbol that has leagues in urban communities. From those leagues, they have all-star teams and an All-Star Game, and then they have a scouting event. He’s been trying for six years to get MLS scouts to go.

This past year in Chicago, I was there to film some videos, because they are trying to grow their women’s side. There was one scout from one MLS team, the Chicago Fire. There were five scouts from five different Mexican teams, including Sergio Bernal [representing Pumas UNAM] and the main guy from Club América. They ended up taking five guys from that combine, that tryout, down to Mexico.

Brad said he was just trying to help the kids in this community get an opportunity, and if there are opportunities in Mexico, that’s MLS’ loss.

We don’t know if it’s something where MLS wants a certain type of player. Maybe they want a taller, bigger, stronger type of player. But I know that down in Mexico, they still talk about how culturally they don’t like doing that. They don’t like going to the United States to get players.

But there are kids in the States who grow up knowing that they want to try to come to Mexico and play. And they will come knowing that they don’t have the papers to get back. That’s just the passion they have for their country. It’s a matter of the heart.

[* - Alan Rothenberg preceded Contiguglia as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. He played a major role in bringing the 1994 World Cup to the United States, and in launching Major League Soccer. The first two MLS Cup trophies were named in his honor.]

I know that the U.S. Soccer Federation has made a big push on integrating the Hispanic community into the national team setup. As you mentioned during the seminar, it’s a big point of emphasis for Jurgen Klinsmann. When someone of Klinsmann’s stature speaks publicly on the topic, doesn’t that resonate a lot with people?

Yeah. And I don’t know how much he has said it publicly. He was saying it to [USSF youth technical director] Tab Ramos and his guys when they were going out scouting. I heard him say it in a meeting with TV analysts right before a game [on ESPN].

And it made me very happy, because it’s my community. It’s the community I grew up in. These kids don’t grow up in playing in USYSA or AYSO. They play in this leagues that are run by who knows what group.

A lot of them don’t grow up playing in MLS academies either.

The good thing is that now with the academies, kids don’t have to pay. So the academies can go wherever they want and get the talent. But the thing is, there are not enough academy teams. What about San Antonio, what about Austin?

By coincidence, Bob Contiguglia sat down next to me during the breakout panel segment. I'm not sure everyone at the table knew who he was, but I certainly did.

One of the things we talked about is that MLS clubs and the U.S. Soccer Federation have to present themselves in a way that makes the kids feel like they want to be there. Is that a fair statement, and if it is, how does that goal get achieved?

There are a lot of kids in Hispanic communities for whom the dream is to grow up and play for Mexico. Uvaldo Luna of the Mexican under-20s is one of those kids. He grew up in Houston and always knew that he wanted to play for Mexico. He was a big loss for the U.S. national team.

I think it’s part of what we were talking about with culture. If you want to win over a certain player or family or community, you have to learn their culture. You can’t just go in and try to do something for them. You have to go in and be a part of them.

It has to do with what [U.S. Soccer Foundation CEO and panel moderator] Ed Foster-Simeon was talking about, having “U.S. Soccer” on their badge. It’s if these kids can be a part of something where they feel loved and accepted and part of this community.

But what do they see on TV all the time growing up? Stuff about immigration reform, and how their parents are getting deported. I have a girl in my Gonzo program whose dad just got his residency. He got deported, and after Obama came in, they stalled it for three years, and he just got his residency last week. They’ve been living in Chicago for 18 years, waiting for him to get his residency.

That’s the kind of perception that these kids grow up with from the government. Where’s your loyalty toward the place where you live? It’s just a means toward an end. Their families came so they could make money and have a good life.

Here’s another way to look at it that I’d like to get your perspective on. Here in Philadelphia, we have a Hispanic community that is growing really fast, but the Union have not always had a great reputation for connecting with that demographic.

What if with those kids, it’s not that they don’t want to join the Union’s academy, but it’s more that they don’t even know it exists? I realize that might be an overstatement. But I wonder if it’s the case at times, both here and in other MLS markets.

That’s a little surprising [about the Union]. I think that on the whole, the Hispanic community, they have the television set on, and they’re watching soccer all the time. Now, 95 percent of the time, they’re watching Mexican soccer on one of the Spanish-language stations. They’re watching Tigres and América and all that. So I can understand why that would be said.

That’s the reason why these kids don’t want to grow up and play for the Union: their parents didn’t know the Union when they were growing up. It’s culture, it’s in their blood, it’s passed down in their genes. So it might take time.

And in the meantime, if the Philadelphia Union can go have a presence in those communities, and go do a soccer program - not just take players to sign autographs one day - but actually have a long-standing presence. And I’m not saying this originally out of my own mind.

This is what Oliver Luck did in Houston [with the Dynamo] when he first got there, and he was very successful. That was his philosophy, and it worked, and unfortunately I don’t think Houston has that philosophy anymore. That would be my suggestion. That would be the way that I think, over time, you build that loyalty and you make that next generation connect to the Philadelphia Union.

To be fair, the Union have done some consequential things with the Hispanic communities in South Philadelphia and elsewhere in the region. It is, though, a perception I’ve heard expressed a number of times over the club’s history.

More generally, I wonder if you think MLS teams have gotten past the point of not thinking about their local Hispanic communities anymore. It’s not that they didn’t want to, it’s that it wasn’t even on their radars in the past. Do you think that has changed?

Yes, I do. From personal experience in Houston, I know that academy teams - maybe not the Dynamo, but the Texas Rush know exactly where to go. You have The Woodlands, and then there’s the next little village up called Conroe. They know that’s where the talent is.

And because the kids don’t have to pay, they don’t have to deal with scholarships and raising money. I think it brings up everything after that, but I think they are getting there.

The next step is that those players have to get their educations so they can get into college and be part of the system to be selected by MLS, because that’s the way it works here. And that’s why a lot of the kids want to go to Mexico, because they don’t have to go college.

To close this piece, here are a few more things to think about along with the interview above.

First, once I turned my audio recorder off, we ended up talking a bit about the MLS academy system and how that allows potential prospects to bypass college. We didn’t get too far into the subject, but I wanted to mention it because it puts another layer of context on the role MLS academies can play.

Second, I want to go back to the story González told about youth soccer in Houston. It might give you some more food for thought.

The Woodlands is a master-planned suburb about 31 miles north of BBVA Compass Stadium. As of the 2010 Census, it was 78.5 percent white, 12.3 percent Hispanic, and 2.4 percent African-American, with a median household income of $105,099.

Conroe is a town about 11 miles north of The Woodlands on Interstate 45. Its population as of the 2010 Census was 48.3 percent white, 38.5 percent Hispanic and 10.3% African-American, with a median household income of $44,613.

When we think about player development in other American sports, especially football and basketball, we talk a lot - whether implicitly or explicitly - about socioeconomic backgrounds. Now that conversation is taking place in soccer too.

There has been a lot of work done in the American soccer community to change its development structure so that that it more closely resembles the rest of the world instead of the rest of America. But it might be worth keeping in mind that for all those changes, there are still some important similarities.

Finally, while I was putting this story together, Univision sent around a press release noting that its Liga MX broadcasts draw higher ratings than NBC’s Premier League broadcasts, both over the air and on cable.

It’s not an entirely fair comparison, because Univision has primetime broadcasts and NBC can’t.

But we also know that UniMás’ broadcast of the 2013 MLS Cup Final drew a higher audience than ESPN’s broadcast: 514,000 to 505,000.

I think there’s a message in those numbers, and I think it’s a message that everyone in the American soccer community ought to listen to.