The story of this year's winner of "Sueno MLS," soccer's answer to "American Idol," underscores how high the odds are stacked against low-income children in American youth soccer.
"There wouldn't be an NBA," says Charlie Brown when contemplating what American basketball might look like if it neglected low-income players the way American soccer so frequently does.
Brown knows quite a bit about both sports. His feats on the court earned him induction into the Lehigh University Athletics Hall of Fame for scoring a school record 1,311 points in the late 1970s. Growing up in Morristown, N.J., he starred as a goalkeeper on his high school soccer team, and he has coached youth soccer for 15 years in Illinois.
Brown's youth coaching started at Aurora club Kickers SC. Brown and fellow coach Herman Rodriguez realized that if they recruited players from the heavily Hispanic east side of Aurora, they could inject a significant amount of exciting talent into their team.
"Those kids play pickup soccer the way I played basketball when I was growing up," says Brown. "They are very good players. Selfishly, we wanted our sons to play with good players, but we also figured we could help the community and all that."
The players that Brown and Rodriguez uncovered "didn't have a lot of money." They didn't even have transportation to practices and games.
"If you came to one of our games," says Brown, "you'd see six kids pile out of his car and I'd have eight kids in my car, and that was the team."
They allowed families to pay their fees monthly instead of upfront, dipped into their own pockets when they needed to, and organized fund-raisers. "The Kickers did give scholarships, but we were going beyond the scholarships," says Brown. "They were good kids who deserved the opportunity."
Eventually, Brown and Rodriguez split from the Kickers to create a club dedicated to providing opportunities for low-income children. They formed the Fox Valley Warriors, for which they obtained non-profit status. One way that they raised funds was through performances by Brown's band, "The Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band."
"When they are young, money should not be an issue," says Rodriguez, an immigrant from Guatemala. "They should be able to play no matter what."
One player they discovered in east Aurora was Alberto Lopez, who was born in the USA to Mexican immigrants.
"The first time I saw Alberto play," Brown says, "he was 9 or so, and I said 'this guy's a pro player.' He was phenomenal. He just needed an opportunity to play a lot, get coaching, and develop."
Getting exposure for their players was difficult, because while the clubs with wealthier parents could take their teams to several showcase tournaments around the nation each summer, the Warriors were lucky if they could raise funds for a single tournament. And while Lopez also excelled on his high school team, his life began unraveling last year.
Both of his parents were laid off from their factory jobs and, as Rodriguez puts it, Lopez "was totally lost." He dropped out of high school.
"He has been struggling since November," Rodriguez says. "He was going in the wrong direction. I had to step in.
"I know he has the drive. He has a really good heart. He is not one of those troublemaker kids. But you know how it is, if you have too much free time on your hands at that age and live in that section in Aurora."
Lopez was, say his coaches, on the verge of joining a gang.
"In Aurora, you got a lot of gangs, Latin Kings, other Latin gangs, African-American gangs," says Brown. "It's a pretty gang-heavy area."
A few years ago, one of their club's teenage players was shot in the street after being misidentified as a gang member because of the color of his clothes. Brown says when he visited the Lopez house one night, he was about to walk down the block, three or four houses, to visit a recruit. Alberto's mother warned him that walking wouldn't be safe.
While Rodriguez worked on getting Lopez back on track, Lopez received a huge favor from his East Aurora High School teammate, goalkeeper Jorge Perez.
Perez saw an announcement for "2009 Sueno MLS" while watching the popular Sunday sports show "Republica Deportiva." A sort of "American Idol" for soccer players, Sueno was launched in 2007 by MLS and Spanish-language network Univision.
"We saw it as an opportunity to get kids in the Hispanic community, especially kids who aren't usually looked at because they aren't part of the traditional system, in front of MLS coaches," says Neel Shah, MLS's director of fan development. "At the same time we found a marketing and media tie through Univision."
In its first year, Sueno (which means "dream" in Spanish) proved more than a marketing stunt when 2,000 young players signed up to try out for a chance to make it with Chivas USA, and the winner, 17-year-old Jorge Flores, succeeded in earning an MLS contract.
Flores debuted in MLS in 2008 and scored three goals that season. The California native, who lived in Mexico from age 1 to 15, was called into the U.S. U-20 national team and helped it qualify for the 2009 U-20 World Cup in Egypt, where he could represent the USA this September.
"In my experience, from speaking to a lot of the participants, most of them have come from mid-level clubs," says Shah. "Most of the kids haven't been selected by ODP or had the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time."
In 2008, Sueno MLS was expanded to 4,000 players and held by Chivas USA and FC Dallas.
"I wish we hosted Sueno every year," says Chris Hayden, youth director of coaching of FC Dallas, whose U-17/18 U.S. Soccer Development Academy team fields a pair of players, Jael Barrera and Noel Luna, discovered through Sueno. 2008 winner Gabriel Funes, and his brother Ramiro, are currently in Argentina training at River Plate.
In 2009, Sueno was held by D.C. United, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago Fire. The goalkeeper Perez went online and signed up. He also signed up Lopez.
"He said he signed me up because he thought I could win," says Lopez, who has also played adult Latin league ball since his early teens.
Scouts from each of the three teams would pick four players out of 600 to become national finalists. The Chicago Fire scouts, led by director of youth development Paul Cadwell, included Lopez among their four finalist picks.
"Both weekends he played a natural game without fear," says Cadwell. "Alberto showed such an overall good soccer brain, good feet. He can drive forward with the ball from midfield, he can switch play with a 30-, 40-, 50-yard pass. He can actually do everything we were looking for. He was the all-around player."
Lopez and the 11 other finalists gathered at the Home Depot Center, where "Republica Deportiva" covered the play as scouts such as former U.S. World Cup player Marcelo Balboa, Peruvian legend Nene Cubillas and MLS director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo picked 17-year-old Lopez the winner.
The Sueno honor earned Lopez a tryout with the Chicago Fire's youth program, the Chicago Juniors. He wants to be a professional player, but is also considering going to college, which is what Rodriguez is urging. He wants Lopez to spend the summer catching up with his high school classes.
However far Lopez goes in his soccer career, his and Flores' stories demonstrate that there is a wealth of young soccer talent in USA waiting to be discovered.
(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)