It took Michael Orozco years to become an overnight success.
In March, the 22-year-old Californian won a starting spot on the U.S. U-23 team and helped it qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games. The USA allowed only one goal in the four games in which Orozco marshaled the central defense, and he earned all-tournament honors at the Concacaf qualifying tournament.
Orozco had made his way to Coach Peter Nowak's team by winning a starting spot on Mexican First Division club San Luis last year - but that was only after he toiled under the radar after leaving his Southern California home at age 18.
Chances are, if Orozco hadn't ventured to Mexico, we wouldn't be talking about him now.
After finishing his youth career with the Irvine Strikers, Orozco trained with Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy, but neither team had in place a developmental program that would suit a young player such as Orozco.
Hugo Salcedo, who helps place U.S. products with Mexican teams, arranged a trial with Necaxa while the Mexican power trained for eight days in Southern California during the InterLiga, the U.S.-hosted tournament that Mexican teams use for Libertadores Cup qualification.
Necaxa invited Orozco to join the club - but accepting the invitation was simply the beginning of a long process.
"I got paid about $200 a month," Orozco said. "They provided housing, at their club house, and food, so it was possible to live on that, but it wasn't easy."
He played on the team's reserve team in the second division.
"It was difficult and frustrating," he said. "There were several times when I wanted to go home. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my parents. But I kept at it, hoping for a break with the first team."
That never happened with Necaxa, but when Coach Raul Arias left for another First Division club, San Luis, he asked Orozco to follow.
Finally, on Aug. 26, 2006, nearly two years after arriving in Mexico, Orozco made his First Division debut. In the 69th minute, with San Luis leading Tigres, 2-0, he replaced Oscar Mascorro. Tigres was playing two-men down after first-half ejections.
Three minutes after he entered the field, Orozco's late slide tackle downed an opponent as he moved toward the penalty area and referee Jose Gomez flashed the red card.
"It wasn't a red card foul," he says, "but you know how refs are down there."
Orozco chuckles about it now, but it would be nearly six months till he saw action again, five games into the Clausura 2007 season. By the time Nowak called Orozco into the U.S. U-23 roster, Orozco had played 32 First Division games.
"It's going very well," Orozco says. "I make a good living. It's a nice city. People recognize you when you walk down the street. The stadium's always full [18,000], and they cheer loud and are always singing."
He stepped straight back into the starting lineup upon his return from the qualifying tournament and is helping San Luis, which is second to Chivas Guadalajara in the overall standings, toward a playoff berth.
CHOOSING BETWEEN NATIONS. A decade ago, the Mexican government, which had previously discouraged dual citizenship, changed its laws to allow anyone born in Mexico or to Mexican parents to obtain Mexican citizenship even if they are citizens of another country.
This allowed Mexican-Americans to regain rights such as the owning property in Mexico, inheriting property and voting in Mexican elections.
It also created opportunities for Mexican-Americans with Mexican soccer clubs, which previously shied away from U.S. players - even if they were Mexican-American - because they would take up the foreigner spots which are usually filled with experienced South American players.
The citizenship measure, combined with the rise of the U.S. game, spurred aggressive scouting by Mexican clubs. Tournaments such as the Dallas Cup, already loaded with Mexican teams, are now a magnet for Mexican scouts.
Mexican citizenship also makes U.S.-born players eligible for the Mexican national team. The 21-year-old Edgar Castillo, who was born and raised in New Mexico, broke through at Santos Laguna and is one of the top young players in the Mexican First Division.
Used to being ignored by the U.S. national team program, Castillo welcomed a Mexico call-up from then-coach Hugo Sanchez last year. He started - and scored - in Mexico's failed attempt to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games. He plays left back for Santos and left midfield for Mexico.
Considering the USA's shortage of left-sided players, the U.S. national team program may regret its apathy toward Castillo. At the very least he serves as a reminder that U.S. coaches should pay more attention to players moving south of the border.
Orozco was born in Orange, Calif., to parents who had emigrated from Mexico. He spoke Spanish and English at home.
"I'm an American and playing for the U.S. national team has always been my goal," says Orozco. He also got an invitation, unlike Castillo.
Another promising star, the 20-year-old Texan Jose Francisco Torres, has gotten the attention of U.S. national team coaches, but if Torres continues his rise at Pachuca, he too may face an option to play for El Tri.
Torres was born and raised in Longview, an East Texas town with a population of about 80,000. He was discovered while playing in a tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., and at age 16 joined Pachuca's youth academy.
He was playing for Pachuca's second division team when, one month after his 18th birthday, he was called up to the first team, which faced Toluca in the semifinals of the Apertura 2006 season.
"We were behind, 1-0," Torres told Noticias Longview. "The coach yelled: 'Gringo! You're going to be nervous at first but get in there and do what you know how.'"
Torres misplayed his first touch, but then took a corner kick that Luis Angel Landin headed home for the equalizer.
Torres saw only three minutes of First Division time in the Clausura 2007 and played two full games in the Apertura 2007. This season, the Clausura 2008, he made five straight starts and saw action in the Concacaf Champions Cup, where his performances in a 3-2 aggregate win over D.C. United were noted by Nowak. Torres impressed and hit the crossbar while playing 45 minutes in Pachuca's 2-0 first-leg win and played 11 minutes in the second leg.
At 5-foot-5, Torres is nicknamed the Mosquito. That he's seen increasing playing time for Mexico's most successful club of the past few years speaks well of his potential. (Since 2006, Pachuca has won two Mexican league titles, the 2007 Concacaf Champions Cup, the 2006 Copa Sudamericana, and the 2007 SuperLiga.)
Asked whether he is considering Torres for the U.S. Olympic team, Nowak told the Washington Post's Steven Goff, "He [Torres] knows there is interest on our side. It is no secret that he has choices."
CHANCES FOR YOUNG MEN. Other U.S. products in Mexico include veteran Daniel Hernandez, who is in the middle of his second stint. The 34-year-old Texan played six seasons in MLS before spending 2003-05 with Necaxa, and played another two seasons with New England before joining Puebla and then Jaguares.
But Hernandez, having been signed after being an established pro, is an exception among the U.S. players in Mexico. The others were acquired by Mexican clubs who believed they could develop them into first-team players. Often the players went south because they couldn't find suitable opportunities in the USA, or their talent went unnoticed or unappreciated.
Many Mexican teams have ambitious youth programs that include housing - casa clubs that resemble college dorms. Developmental players often receive only spending money, but if they make it to the first team, paydays are very lucrative.
And while MLS has a reserve league, Mexican reserve teams play more games, and in highly competitive lower division leagues that are part of the promotion-relegation system.
Northern California product Jesus Padilla, 21, for instance, has played only two league games for Chivas Guadalajara's first team, but he's played in 12 Primera A games (scoring three goals) for the second team, Tapatio, and within the last year has seen action in the Libertadores Cup, Copa Sudamericana and Superliga.
Padilla, who left the San Jose area at age 14 for Chivas Guadalajara's youth program, was approached last year by the U.S. U-20 national team program.
Then there's the case of Southern Californian Sammy Ochoa, 21, who played for the USA at the 2005 U-20 World Cup. He debuted for the UAG Tecos first team in 2006, when he made 12 appearances, but played only four minutes in the First Division in 2007. But being able to play with the second team, for which he has scored seven goals in the last 14 games, could earn him a move back up and a look from the U.S. Olympic team.
Carlos Borja, 20, is a teammate of Padilla's on Tapatio and played youth ball with the Irvine Strikers besides spending time in residency with the U.S. U-17 national team in Bradenton, Fla. In 2006, Borja signed a developmental contract with MLS's Chivas USA, which thought he'd be better off with the sister club. He debuted with Tapatio in March.
Borja is a player who was identified by the U.S. national team program early. Playing in Mexico provides a chance to see competitive action that he wouldn't get in MLS.
MANY MORE TO COME? But if players like Castillo and Torres, who would have likely faded into obscurity had they not found opportunities in Mexico, have national team potential, how many more like them are there?
For sure, Mexican clubs are likely to scour the USA even more aggressively in light of Castillo's and Torres' success. Most of the big Mexican clubs have already developed extensive affiliate programs, many quite informal, reaching into Mexican communities across the United States. More and more players will be lured at young ages to enter Mexican clubs' residency programs.
One could see this as good news for young players who are overlooked or cannot afford elite youth soccer in the USA. But it's an unsatisfactory scenario that they must leave their country for suitable opportunities.
And it spotlights once again the flaws in the USA's current system for identifying young talent, developing it, and appreciating the still barely tapped pool of Latino players.
(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)