By Mike Woitalla
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Soccer Federation hiring a staff coach, Carlos Juarez, and charging him with reaching out to the Latino community, which had been generally excluded from mainstream American soccer. We spoke with Juarez in Part 1 of our series looking at U.S. Soccer's quest to become more inclusive and now we check in with some of Juarez’s successors and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Soccer Federation began offering its coaching license courses in Spanish. Carlos Menjivar certified some 3,000 Latino coaches with E, D and C licenses while serving, from 1997 to 2002, as a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Multicultural Outreach and Development.
“Making the courses available in Spanish was of great importance,” says El Salvador-born Menjivar. “They had been scared of taking coaching courses. They spoke English in their daily routine, but were not confident enough to take a course in English where things had to be explained clearly, corrections made. Where they were under pressure, because they were being evaluated and taking tests.”
Juan Carlos Michia, who remains a U.S. Soccer staff coach, was hired in 1996 in a similar role to Menjivar’s.
“We were the only two Latinos guys covering a country of 300 million people,” says Menjivar.
But their work made an impact, bringing thousands of Latino coaches into the fold of mainstream American soccer, which had largely neglected its Latino community despite its deep roots in the game and an obvious source of talent.
“I see coaches I had in my courses now coaching in the Development Academy,” says Michia, while Menjivar says he saw many go on to coach club, college and high school and get B and A licenses.
“The strategy was a sound one,” says Rene Miramontes, who preceded Menjivar before becoming assistant coach of the Colorado Rapids in 1997. “Educate the coaches, then educate the players.
“Credit to the folks at U.S. Soccer, because they actually devoted the resources to the Hispanic community. Once we began to get the word out, the key people in the Hispanic community -- which often had a ‘What do they know about soccer’ attitude -- began to see the value of this.”
Through the courses, the Federation staff made contacts.
“We’d had to have players to demo,” Miramontes said. “We’d see talented players and asked about them. ‘Do you know any more?’ … ‘Do you want to scout for us?’ … And we started building a player identification network.”
Besides the coaching courses, Michia and Menjivar would urge unaffiliated Latin leagues to come under U.S. Soccer’s umbrella and they held player ID camps for Latino players in metropolitan areas around the nation.
“We had to educate and convince coaches, parents, administrators,” says Michia. “They didn’t know about ODP stuff. They thought that was about going to the Olympics. We had to translate the ODP forms in Spanish for them to know what it is.
“The Spanish and American media helped a lot, spreading the word to get coaches and players to come out.”
Also instrumental in outreach to the Latino community was the creation Latin American Soccer Coaches Association (LASCA), inspired in part by Steve Sampson, the fluent Spanish-speaking U.S. national team coach from 1995 to 1998. He had encouraged Hispanic soccer coaches and administrators such as Ric Fonseca, Luis Sagastume, Joe Supe, Ralph Perez and Frank Rojas, then president of the CSA South, to organize, give a voice to Latino coaches, and help the integration process. LASCA gained the support of the NSCAA.
“Our goals and objectives were to simply to make a very concerted effort to, on a national level, identify and promote Latino and Latina coaches, players, game officials, organization/league leaders youth and adult, and whenever possible incorporate them into the U.S. Soccer landscape," says Fonseca, who served as L.A. City College coach and Athletic Director for more than two decades.
Now, two decades later, the U.S. youth soccer landscape is profoundly more diverse. Pay-to-play remains a serious barrier to low-income kids in the Latino community and beyond, but U.S. youth national teams, whose coaches includes Tab Ramos and Hugo Perez, have a significant presence of Latino players.
"All of our efforts in this area are part of a long-term plan to be more inclusive generally, but with a special emphasis on the Hispanic community,” says U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “That community is growing and is enthusiastic about the sport, so it's an obvious connection.
“What are those efforts? They are many. It's the hiring of scouts and liaisons and later head coaches; it's media and technical materials in Spanish; it's training centers in areas previously overlooked to identify and develop talented young players; it's in the composition of our Board of Directors; it's all of those things and many more. But most importantly it's an understanding that it would be foolish not to dedicate resources to a growing, able and enthusiastic Hispanic community."
One decade ago, the only Latino coaches on U.S. Soccer’s national staff were Michia and Roberto Lopez, who covered Region 2 from 2003 to 2011.
Lopez, who immigrated to Florida at age 12, in 1969, coached the Clearwater Chargers to a runner-up finish in the 1991 USYS Snickers Cup U-17 National Championship.
“When I moved to Florida there weren’t any youth leagues,” Lopez says. “I played in the ethnic adult leagues, where you had Latino teams, Greek teams …
“Then I became a youth coach. On the way to the national finals, the teams we played teams had hardly any Hispanic players,” he says. “They were mainly upper middle-class white kids. I figured economics had a lot to do with it.”
When he joined U.S. Soccer, his main responsibilities were coaching education and scouting for the U-14 and the U-17 national team program. But he also held player ID camps in Midwest Latino communities to look for “players you’re not going to see at a State Cup.”
Lopez has returned to Clearwater Chargers and coaches its U-18 Development Academy team.
“If you look at the families of the players on my roster, I have 15 different nationalities,” says Lopez. “Peruvian, Uruguayan, New Zealand, Scottish, English, Cameroon …”
Mainstream youth soccer, he says, has started to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population, and U.S. Soccer’s scouting network -- with nine Technical Advisors, nearly half Hispanic, and 100 scouts -- is casting a wide net.
“In the old days,” says Lopez, “I thought there were a whole lot of Latin kids all over the place that we haven’t discovered. Waiting to be discovered. Once I got in there I saw the amount of work my colleagues have done and other people have done. I’m sure there’s kids we’re missing, but I don’t think there’s too many kids we don’t find anymore. News travels fast now."
Miramontes says the Development Academy “is not complete, but overall does a pretty good job of identifying Hispanic players and bringing them in.”
Michia, now in his 18th year as a U.S. Soccer staff coach, says a major difference today compared to the earlier years is it has become much easier to connect with the Latino soccer community.
“It’s like day and night,” Michia says. “At the time, we had to educate the minority to let them know there was a chance to be in the national team. Sometimes I think about it and I laugh, because I had to chase coaches and players to come to the Training Center. Now we send one e-mail -- and get everyone in one place.”
(In Part 3, the Youth Soccer Insider will check in with Hugo Salcedo, who became the second Mexican-American to represent the USA at a world championship when he appeared in the 1972 Olympics and has played various roles since advocating for Latino talent in the USA.)
Read "Latino Inclusion: How far have we come? (Part 1)" HERE.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com. Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)