U.S. Talent Heads South

Mexican pro clubs and Mexico's national team program have started plucking talent from the USA.

Edgar Castillo is 20 years old and he just bought a house. A year ago, he made his Mexican First Division debut with Santos Laguna. This season, he starts at left back.

One day he wants to play in MLS, but for now he's quite happy playing in front of big crowds in the Mexican league and getting asked for autographs when he walks around Torreon with his girlfriend or his younger brother, Noel, who plays for Santos' second division team.

One of their Santos teammates is Sonny Guadarrama, who has something in common with Edgar and Noel. All three of them were born and raised in the USA.

Edgar and Noel grew up in Las Cruces, N.M. Guadarrama is from Austin, Texas.

The Castillos were drawn to Santos because their parents emigrated from Torreon. Tigres of Monterrey were interested in Edgar, because they saw him play at the Dallas Cup, but Edgar's father thought he'd be better off in a place where he had relatives.

In 2005, Edgar and Noel attended a tryout for young players at Santos. Out of the 300 players, they were among the eight who were chosen and offered long-term contracts. "At first we were on the team that practiced on the dirt field," says Noel.

But they moved up quickly, especially Edgar, who earns the kind of bonuses that enabled him to buy a house, which he'll move into when it's fixed up. For now, he and Noel live with their grandmother.

On a few occasions when the boys were young, the Castillo family took a 12-hour bus ride to Torreon. One time they happened to be there when Santos beat Necaxa to win the Mexican league title.

"I told my dad, 'I'm going to play for Santos," Edgar says.

The fact that he now does has much to do with Linda Lara. In 1984, she signed her oldest child up for a YMCA soccer league.

"I didn't know anything about soccer," says Lara. "But my son said, 'All the guys say it's fun. You kick the ball.'"

"All the guys" were children of Mexican immigrants in their Las Cruces neighborhood. But when Lara tried to sign her son up, she was told she would have to coach.

"I read some books and asked the older boys to help," says Lara. She eventually started Strikers FC and when she realized she had some talented kids learned that if they wanted national team or college opportunities they would have to travel to major tournaments and send kids to ODP tryouts.

Lara was born and raised in Deming, N.M., and had never been out of the state when she began organizing trips for her teams. Qualifying for regional cups meant venturing as far as Hawaii. The center of New Mexico's organized soccer is 224 miles north in Albuquerque, so even in-state trips proved costly for players whose parents are often unemployed or hold low-income jobs in the service industry. Three hotel rooms would often accommodate their whole team. Lara frequently spends her own money on the boys.

"I have no life savings left and go to my credit cards often," says Lara, who is an elementary school counselor and a family therapist for parents of disabled children.

Her main goal is to see Strikers players attend college -- and many have -- but she's pleased with the Castillos' success at Santos. Guadarrama did attend college for one season, at Campbell University, where his older brother Willy was the NCAA Division I leading scorer in 2005. Both played for the Austin Capitals.

Willy Guadarrama is now with MLS's Kansas City Wizards. Sonny Guadarrama attended a Santos tryout in December 2005 and was immediately offered a contract. His father, Sergio, agreed on the condition that they would fund his university education in Torreon. Sonny attends classes in addition to appearing for both Santos' second and first division teams.

Sergio had emigrated from Mexico to Texas when he was 25. He set up a 30-by-30-yard soccer field in their backyard and constructed an indoor "arena" for them - a 20-by-20 foot concrete structure.

"I thought it would be good for the boys to be able to play indoor and outdoors," said Sergio, an architect.

Says Willy, "We played all the time and brought friends to join us. The soccer room didn't have windows or air conditioning, so it would get pretty hot, but it was a lot of fun and gave us a place to play when it rained."

Sonny Guadarrama, who has dual citizenship, was called into the Mexican U-20 national team pool shortly after arriving in Mexico and is currently in camp with the World Youth Championship-bound team, but Sergio says he'll play for the U.S. U-20s, who had given him brief looks, if they send an invite.

"The kid's a playmaker," says Campbell coach Doug Hess, "a true attacking midfielder who scores from long range, which is a rare, rare commodity in America. To be honest, I don't think they'd know what to do with him in MLS. It was the same with the national teams. They brought him in to the U-15s, the U-18s, the U-20s, but never did anything with him. He always did well, scored goals, but I'd hear comments like 'he can't defend.'"

In fact, more Latino players from the USA are looking to Mexico, whose clubs may have a better appreciation for their style of play.

Loyola Marymount coach Paul Krumpe believes that MLS tends to pass on smaller, technical players like 5-foot-7 Junior Ybarra, who is headed to Necaxa after finishing up at LMU. Lara says the frequent response she got from ODP coaches about Edgar Castillo, who now stands 5-foot-9, was, "He's so small. He's so small."

Michael Orozco, a 20-year-old native of Orange, Calif., who played for the Irvine Strikers, has started seven games for Mexican First Division team San Luis, which he was hooked up with by Hugo Salcedo, a player representative for Proactive Sports Management.

"MLS right now does not really have a system to take care of youngsters like Michael Orozco," Salcedo says. "Within one year, he made it to the top team at San Luis."

Sammy Ochoa, 20, who was born in Mexico and raised in Riverside. Calif., debuted for UAG Tecos last year. Jesus Padilla, born in Mexico and raised in San Jose, Calif., debuted for Chivas Guadalajara's first team in 2006 and sees action for its second division team.

Also headed to Chivas Guadalajara this summer is Bryan Leyva, 15, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Dallas, where he played for Everton FC America.

It does appear a trend has begun. Mexican clubs are actively scouting U.S. talent with Mexican heritage and even the Mexican national team has been holding tryouts in major U.S. cities.

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