To the critics carping about kids of Hispanic descent routinely being ignored or overlooked by U.S. Soccer and MLS, the case of Arturo Alvarez offers a strong rebuttal.
Raised by Salvadoran parents in Houston, he'd been dazzling local youth coaches since he was 8.
"I liked him from the first time I saw him play, when he was a 16-year-old, at a U-17 combine," says San Jose coach Frank Yallop, who drafted the youngster in 2003 during his first stint as coach of the Quakes and traded in July to get him back. "You take a bit of a flyer with a kid that age, but he showed a lot of talent. When we had a chance to get him I said, 'Let's get him.'"
Yallop got him in exchange for a 2009 SuperDraft pick and allocation money after Schellas Hyndman replaced Steve Morrow as FC Dallas coach. San Jose had traded him after the 2004 season and despite showing flashes of brilliance in Big D, he never scored more than three goals in a season while playing 24 games in 2005, 19 games in 2006 and 27 games last year.
"I came in to learn. I never came in thinking that I was going to be a star right away," says Alvarez, 23, who missed a chance to play for the U.S. at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup because of injury. "The physical side of the game, the speed of play, things like that you don't know about until you are there, in the mix with the professional guys."
Decent numbers this season (three goals and three assists in 16 games) didn't sway Hyndman, who, like Yallop, revamped his team in midseason. Along with Darren Huckerby, Scott Sealy and Francisco Lima, Alvarez helped transform the sorry Quakes into a competitive team.
A nine-game unbeaten run sparked playoff hopes, which withered in home losses to Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. But in his own nine-game stretch, Alvarez scored three goals and two assists while flashing the remarkable skills that convinced Yallop to draft him five years ago.
In Alvarez's return to San Jose Aug. 3, he scored against Los Angeles with a brazen shot from the left side with the outside of his left foot, a marvel of geometry as well as physiology, not to mention confidence. He cushioned a pass from Sealy, stepped past a tackler and jabbed the ball inches inside the far post from about 10 yards out.
"He's just unpredictable, and in this league there aren't a lot of guys who are unpredictable and still have a lot of skill," says Quakes goalie Joe Cannon. "He's a little like Dwayne [De Rosario] in that he just does different things."
De Rosario and Alvarez were teammates for two seasons in San Jose (2003-04), and since they parted, Alvarez has watched De Rosario win two MLS Cups in his hometown with the Dynamo. Once prone to playing mainly in spurts or barely playing at all, as De Rosario has matured so has his game. One of the missing elements in Alvarez's game is a steady level of performance.
"He still has a bit to go in his game, it's more about the consistency thing, but last year I thought he was outstanding for Dallas," says Yallop. "I really thought he was one of the best players in the league toward the end of the season. He's not been quite as good as he was last year, but he'll get there. I feel the best is yet to come from him."
Hometown: Houston, Texas
2003-04:San Jose Earthquakes
2005-08: FC Dallas
2008: San Jose Earthquakes
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)