Interview by Mike Woitalla
Since Brad Rothenberg co-founded Alianza de Futbol in 2004, the program's tournaments and tryouts in U.S. Hispanic communities have become a magnet for Mexicans clubs scouting U.S.-bred talent. We spoke to Rothenberg about the integration of Hispanics into mainstream American soccer and the challenges faced by young Latino players in the USA.
SOCCER AMERICA: How important do you believe Latino talent is in the USA’s quest to become a soccer world power?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Latino talent is critically important to U.S. Soccer’s future. We need to change our mix at the National Team level. I am very encouraged by the quotes from Jurgen Klinsmann that we have to penetrate the cultural and ethnic divide that exists in U.S. Soccer to develop the players we need to compete at the top international level.
Latinos offer three unique ingredients: 1. Latino kids have superior ball skills and are more comfortable in tight spaces. That seems to be taken as gospel now by the soccer cognoscenti. 2. Latino kids “need” the game to bring them opportunity. 3. Those same kids often play -- are even given no option but to play -- “unstructured” soccer where they develop a confidence and style that elevates their game -- much like African-American kids playing on inner-city blacktops changed basketball and the NBA.
The Latino skill and hunger combined with the athleticism and power of the traditional Anglo affiliated and college player blended by a special national team coach is the recipe we should be after.
SA: How far has the U.S. national team program come in tapping into its immigrant Hispanic population – the majority of which hails from soccer-mad countries?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Clearly it has improved in the past 15-20 years; look at the surnames of kids on the best youth club teams and you’ll find more Hispanics.
But the real question is how far has the program come in spite of itself. The system is still “pay to play” and that puts money over talent. I think June 21, 2002 was a landmark moment for U.S. Soccer -- it set the development program way back. Our team was on the threshold of World Cup elite status. Even though we lost to Germany, the future was limitless. But instead of using that game as a catalyst to find the missing pieces that may have lead to the creation of a youth identification and development program, U.S. Soccer sat back and lost a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Recently, U.S. Soccer has stepped up development. Things are improving but here we are in 2011 and there is still no program dedicated to identifying Latino talent among the millions of youth players playing on unaffiliated teams across the country.
SA: To what extent are young Latino players being missed by the traditional U.S. national team program identification programs?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: The majority of the kids that come to tryout in our Alianza program in 14 U.S. cities are unaffiliated; few if any know about the [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy program; most know about but haven’t been connected to MLS Academy clubs.
There is only so much MLS can do (and MLS Academy clubs have found good Latino talent and some have worked with us to do so), but too many unaffiliated Latino kids live too far from MLS cities or Academies. Alianza only gets to see about 350 kids per city in an open tryout format yet 20 have pro contracts in Mexico after two-plus years of tryouts. That math is scary when you consider how many hundreds of thousands of elite Latino players aren’t even getting opportunities.
SA: Children from lower-income households, Hispanic or otherwise, are priced out of elite youth soccer in the USA. But youth clubs no doubt make efforts to “scholarship” lower-income players. How big an impact do you believe those efforts have?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Scholarships make a big difference. Clubs offering scholarships, especially the MLS Academy clubs, let merit win out. Unfortunately, MLS cannot be everywhere and there are way too few scholarships for the number of great Latino players in need of financial help.
SA: What is the solution to making sure that Latino talent gets the opportunities to reach the highest levels in the USA?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: One answer for Alianza is a closer working relationship with U.S. Soccer. Alianza wants to grow. We currently have players from over 43 states come to try out but we can’t be in more places without more financial resources or partners.
The majority of our kids have no idea what opportunities exist to them or how U.S. Soccer is structured. And they and their families still aspire to play overseas, not with MLS or with U.S. Soccer. We want to find more of these kids, introduce them to the system that exists and hopefully will support them here; connect them with U.S. Soccer and MLS.
In fact, as we target younger players, they are not going to be inclined to leave their families in the U.S. and we will need a local program -- and scholarship money -- for them to develop at home.
SA: Can you give us a couple of examples of players who found opportunities at the higher levels of soccer thanks to Alianza?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Each of our 20 kids playing in Mexico has a great story but some that stand out include Julio Morales from San Jose, Calif., who played affiliated club soccer but was sheltered from greater opportunities by his club coach.
We broke down that barrier, opened doors for him with U.S. Soccer through Hugo Perez as well as with the Earthquakes. Chivas de Guadalajara offered him a contract and he moved to Mexico to join the team.
Eduardo Moreno from Liberal, Kan., drove over three hours several times to come to our tryout and local All-Star game in Denver last year. He sacrificed his high school season with the support of his coach who saw this as a special opportunity.
We placed him on our National All-Star team and he received multiple contract offers to move to Mexico but he wanted to stay close to his family.
Unfortunately, Liberal, Kan., is far from any Academy club so we introduced him to Sporting KC, where he is under consideration for a homegrown contract and has found opportunity to tryout for the US U17 team.
Ismael Ruiz tried out for us when his father, who was working for Alianza, suggested he step in goal. He played. He was scouted. He was selected. Tigres offered a contract and this year he started in goal for each game when Tigres won the Dallas Cup.
SA: Besides the high-cost, what other challenges do young Latino players face?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Latino kids get too many messages of disapproval that must be interpreted to mean that hard work and determination are not rewarded. I know dozens of families of talented players who are discouraged. Those messages are both in the public at large as the politics of immigration lead to social marginalization as well as deep inside soccer.
I’ve heard too many very respected soccer people confidently say that no Latinos are being missed by our existing system. College football coaches in Texas go to upwards of 100 high schools to recruit players and most college soccer coaches won’t come see 20 Latino kids pre-screened by Mexico’s top scouts playing in an Alianza All-Star game in their town.
SA: Do you think the ambitious recruitment of Mexican-Americans by Mexican clubs has been a wake-up call to the U.S. Soccer Federation?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Not yet! Alianza is still sending kids from our program to Mexico because Mexico keeps sending scouts to our tryouts. I’m a diehard fan of the U.S. national team and MLS but I care more about Latino families and the opportunities I can bridge for them. Besides the Mexican scouts we pay to administer the tryout program for us, the others who come don’t receive a fee from us. These scouts tell me that the Mexican-American kids grow up stronger and healthier because they live in the U.S.; they are fitter and have more endurance.
That’s scary. Since the Mexican team that tore past us at Gold Cup were all native Mexicans I’m concerned what we’ll see when Mexico finds the stronger, healthier, fitter version of Barrera, Gio and Chicharito growing up in the U.S. I think the alarm just sounded.
SA: Did your father’s work in soccer have an influence on your interest in soccer in the Hispanic community? [Alan Rothenberg was U.S. Soccer President in 1990-98 and CEO of World Cup USA 1994.]
BRAD ROTHENBERG: It sure did. While he was dedicated to the ‘94 World Cup, building up the coffers for what became the U.S. Soccer Foundation and initiating the launch of MLS he talked to me at home about his long-term desire to reach out to the Latino and African-American community. He knew he wasn’t going to have time to get that done in his two terms.
In many ways I’m living the legacy of my dad’s U.S. Soccer presidency. But really my mother is the one in our family who taught me, firsthand, how to do something grassroots in the community. She founded Pacoima Day Camp in the San Fernando Valley in L.A., which was committed to offering minorities summer day camp for no more than $1 dollar for the session if means were limited.
My mom didn’t just donate money. She rolled up her sleeves and got involved. And she never heard of “pay to play.”