Brad Rothenberg: 'Latino talent critically important to U.S. future'

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.”

19 comments about "Brad Rothenberg: 'Latino talent critically important to U.S. future'".
  1. Luis Arreola, August 25, 2011 at 11:43 p.m.

    Wow!! I wonder what club Julio Morales was playing for that tried to block him from going pro?? Wake up call?? Good for Alianza. I am signing up for their next tournament. Maybe I have the next pro story to add the wake up call.

  2. Dennis Mueller, August 26, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.

    There is not much new here. For years people have worked at the local level to help kids play soccer. Some coaches try to prevent their star players from leaving for a better team/situation; happens with Latinos, Anglos, Blacks ... nothing new in that! Every coach I know tries to incorporate the best players onto the team. There is deinitely a problem and that is that too often, the issue of scholarships is not all, for years, I and others like me went out of our way to be sure that the scholarship kids we had could actually make it to practices and games. Mostly those kids were minorities whose home situations could not provide even a ride to practice. Of the 4 kids I "took care of" one never had a single family member attend a game, one had his father come twice in 8 years, and the third, who lived with his grandmother, never had a family member attend a game until his father turned up for a single game when the player was a junior in HS. The 4th had a bit more support but hardly overwhelming, his Hispanic friends accused him of not being Hispanic, because he got good grades. Of the 4, two graduated from college, one joined the army and the 4th I lost track of when he dropped out of J.C. Only one played soccer (Div. III) in college. The one who went into the army was the most skilled player, but even in H.S. he had a problem with alcohol that led to a hospitalization. For a variety of reasons, none of these players where ever likely to become a professional soccer player, but they were very good. ODP was out of their reach for the same reasons I had to chauffeur them around. In our club, I know of at least 5 other parent-coaches who did the same sort of thing for other players. Of players on their teams, one went to Bradenton and was a U-17 USMNT player (the only one who was not "missed" by the system in Rothenberg-speak), one was a very special talent who "failed to thrive" when he was injured as a college freshman, fathered a child and is now a laborer (BTW, he was coached by national team coaches from the time he was 13), one failed to graduate H.S., one found drugs and trouble in his early teens and foundered, and two played Div. III college soccer, starred for their teams and graduated. None of these kids would have been "saved" by Rothenberg, he is simply looking at only the very best of the best and at least a a few would not even be eligible to play for the US. When he speaks of grassroots, he is simply not looking deep enough. The problems many of the players face are society's problems and the naive assumption that all you need to do is identify the talented players to make everything good is well.. naive.
    Certainly a handful of players can be helped, and more should be, but it is clear noone at the top of any organization can wave a magic wand and make things all good. The opportunities for players must be provided locally and that is something no one actually controls.

  3. Andres Yturralde, August 26, 2011 at noon

    Fascinating! Sounds like Alianza de Futbol is on the right track. And good takes from Rothenberg, too. No one ever has all the answers, but at least he's moving the right way--with positive intent. Which leads me to Dennis Mueller: Too many negatives, my friend. You've done so much good with all those kids, don't throw it all away by focusing on the bad things. I still remember when my buddy and I used to be "chauffeured" by our coach to practices and games. None of our family or friends ever came to watch, but our coach was always there for us. Looking back now, how great that guy was! You better believe that when I make some real money in this life, he's one of the first people I'm going to find.

  4. Rick Figueiredo, August 26, 2011 at 1:25 p.m.

    We can sit here and argue these thoughts all day but what the USA needs are AMERICANS. Study the great futebol nations of the world! Is Argentina run by foreignors? Brasil? Germany? Holland? Italy? gawd help me there. The essence of success must come from within the american characteristic. If the USA can produce a Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. Ali!!! Why can't it also stand to reason that there must be an American Pele lying in wait in someone's ball sack! Sorry bout that.

  5. Luis Arreola, August 26, 2011 at 2:31 p.m.

    Rick, what a really dumb comment. Do you not remember that the USA wanted to send Ali to war ?? Do you know why he changed his name to Muhamed Ali ?? He wanted to get rid of his slave name. I think by American you mean USA citizen because America refers to 2 continents and thats alot of Americans. Blacks were, not too long ago, not really considered an "American". Black Athletes were not produced in this country out of good will but out of constant over working and cross breeding like work horses. I see more and more Black people on the German and Holland teams than before so it is only logical that we will see more Hispanics in USa soccer national teams. Remember, "America" did not want Black people playing any sports not too long ago. White America was forced to accept Black people as "Americans". Irony.

  6. Rudy Espindola, August 26, 2011 at 10:30 p.m.

    Mr. Figueiredo, with all respect: there are no asian Pele, european Pele, American (USA?) Pele. there is only one Edson Arantes Do Nascimento "PELE". there won't be another one.

  7. Luis Arreola, August 26, 2011 at 11:17 p.m.

    Ric, can you send me a copy or where can I get the full article?

  8. Amos Annan, August 27, 2011 at 5:38 a.m.

    There are two sides to most of these arguments and "much more to the story".

    Some of this article is self-serving: Unless Alianza is run by volunteers, they make money off promoting this. Assume money is going somewhere.

    While there are some cultural differences that encourage Latino/Hispanic participation, there is little evidence to suggest any superiority of talent. The statement that Hispanic are better than others at ball control in tight spaces is ridiculous.

    "Poor" would be a better focus - not just Latino/Hispanic. There are a lot of poor whites and blacks that are not getting opportunities to participate, but at least in the Hispanic community there is a cultural emphasis to increase involvement in soccer.

  9. Luis Arreola, August 27, 2011 at 7:10 a.m.

    Money is the #1 reason to do anything in soccer anywhere. What Alianza is doing is profiting but is getting these kids the opportuniny they are not getting in the regular USA system. I went to a tournament in Chicago and it is really cheap. Black's and whites were there too but not many. Amos, for that same reason, "there is more of a soccer emphasis in Hispanics" and poor is why this article was made directly towards the Hispanic community.

  10. Luis Arreola, August 27, 2011 at 7:14 a.m.

    Amos, if you were to write an article on basketball opportunities for low income players you would target the black community for the very same reasons. It is what it is. I wish too they would include Hispanics as I am a die hard basketball Mexican 6'2" point gaurd but I get it.

  11. Luis Arreola, August 27, 2011 at 4:13 p.m.

    Ric, I think Amos doesn't like Hispanics. Its ok Amos. You can say it. I respect people who are a least honest more than those who want to be political. Amos, for you to be political in comments you have to make more sense.

  12. Doug Olson, August 29, 2011 at 12:22 p.m.

    "Morales was a forward on the Santa Clara Sporting ’93 Team coached by John Azevedo."

  13. Timothy Mayo, August 29, 2011 at 1:58 p.m.

    Dennis and Rick, you guys are extremely accurate: US needs to develope our own national players. Luis Arreola, your notion of American history is narrow, non progressive and biased in tone and nature. We are the only country in the world that is not developing our best know atheletes: the Black American. They own every concievable sports record from Venus and Serena in Tennis, Ali in boxing to Michael Jordan in Basketball. Sorry the latino/hispanic population is no-where as accomplished in athletics as the Black native USA community..period! If we want a grass roots movement in America start by reaching out to the best know athletes like every other country does. Shopping for only Latin or Hispanic players is not the answer and will never be the solution. Hispanic play soccer but they do not dominate at the club level or any level here in the US..check the rosters and results and you will find that there is not a shortage of Latino/Hispanic players and they populate almost every youth team but they are not the most talented individuals on those teams. If that is the case why does'nt Mexico win the world cup or do better on the Global Stage? Brazil doe's (huge success) as well as most countries that utulize their best athletic pool of talent. Last I checked the best Brazilian players are either African/black looking or mulatos (mixed culture of black and latino decent the likes ofPele,Ronaldo,Danny Alvez,Robinho, Nuemar ect...) and they embrace their bi-cultural heritage. So Dennis Mueller and Rick Figuerra are absolutely accurate: you can recruit all the latino players you want in the US..but until you tap the best athletes in the US we will never compete like the rest of the world with success because we are leaving out the most successful group in the US athletic culture: the Michael Vick's, Jordan's and Magic Johson's. Check the facts and results...England,France, Germany, Holland, Brazil and all countries reach out to attract the most talented athletic pool in their needless to say the USA must do the same. Stop the anti-Latino player talk...they are well represented simply open your eye's and look around and stop the victim talk. With all the issues we have in this country one thing we do know is "talent" because all the Gold Medals and International championships we have in every sport with the exception of soccer proves that...but we are not tapping our best athletes...and sorry but they are not the Latino's improve your argument with out always using the anti-latino typical aint true!!! Check the facts!

  14. Luis Arreola, August 29, 2011 at 5:59 p.m.

    Mayo,explain why its narrow. Hispanics are not as accomplished in sports as black's but it sureley is easily more than whites. We dominate baseball for example wich happens to be the "American" past time. You are extremely inaccurate in your argument. Mexico just won the U17 W.C. 2011 for the 2nd time and finished 3rd in the same year in U20 W.C. That's global brother. Mexico also dominated the Gold Cup competition. 90% of the top youth teams in Illinois, Texas and California are predominantly Hispanic and 90% of the time the top players are Hispanic. These 3 states also happen to be the top soccer states in the USA. Those are facts. If Hispanics in the USA aren't the best soccer players then why do they seem to get most of the offers from the better paying clubs of Mexico? While Brazil is great as you say they are a mix of Black, Latino and Native Indian as they have mixed indiscriminately to a great advantage you have Argentina who have produced many top players including 2 of the best in the world. Uruguay and Chile are tops as well. All these Hispanics teams have performed better at the global stage than African teams. Hispanic players are distinguished by usually having the better footwork,speed and most importantly creativity of others as a majority. Skill always over athleticism. Nowitski, Nash and Bird are great examples. Jordan was unique because he had the total package. Messi would have never been considered an Athlete in USA because of his hormonal growth defect at age 13 and his size. USA would have never made the investment that Barcelona made in him. USA has the wrong mentality when it comes to soccer and it is proven. Nobody said Hispanics were the better overall athletes but we are the better skilled overall talented soccer players in USA and the whole American continent. There are other nationalities that are as good but we are talking about a majority. It is what it is.

  15. Luis Arreola, August 29, 2011 at 6:13 p.m.

    USA should concentrate on simply getting the best players currently available right now and we can all agree that this is not happening. It just so happens Hispanics are the ones being pursued by the better pro clubs and Hispanic National Teams that are higher ranked countries that the USA. It just doesn't make sense for the USA to let them go so easily. Its not logical and unrealistic. There is an effort in this country to prove reality wrong regarding g soccer but the best will come out on top wether its here or somewhere else. There is always hope. If USA wants to keep wasting its time for another few years until it finally wises up like they did with basketball and baseball, knock yourselves out!!

  16. Alejandro Cabero, August 31, 2011 at 4:02 p.m.

    On MLS Eastern Conference thBrad Rothemberg and BRC group should be recognized as a key factor for the future generations of Soccer in US. I am glad Mr. Cummins and NSCAA partner with them on Alianza de Futbol and many other programs. Here in Kansas City his team (Juan Ignacio Blanco, Ricardo Marquez, Joaquin Escotto, Raul Lopez) are makingm a huge impact in our soccer community every year.

  17. Timothy Mayo, September 5, 2011 at 8:56 p.m.

    Guys, point is choose the best talent at a young age nearest you and the cream will alwyas rise to the top if politics, bias and different types of predujices (height, size,economic, ethnicity) are removed. You can teach a seal to juggle, an elephant to stand on a ball....that being said you can teach anyone techical ability but you can not replace speed and naturally athleticability and once trained and developed speed and athleticability will 90% of the times be the decisive factor in all explosive sports! Net/ Paul Bear Bryant attested you give me those two ingrediants and I will develope the rest. In this country we do not have the best athletes participating in soccer like the rest of thw world so the USA's goal should be to do a better job of reaching a larger gifted athletic pool and train them like they have done in every sport that we have dominated which are countless. It is a matter of time if Kleinsmann and the US is serious about making a major impact which you can not do if your 85% best athletes are not even participating in the sport! NET/NET!

  18. Luis Arreola, September 20, 2011 at 5:57 p.m.

    Mayo, Messi would have never been considered an athlete in USA. Short, not the fastest sprinter, not strong, growth defect. He is the fastest with the ball at his feet running at full speed, weaving between defenders and hesitating without ever slowing down. This is not by a long shot easily learned or taught. This is not eye hand coordination like Baseball and Basketball. You can tell by comments like these that this is a sport that is still not understood by many in USA.

  19. Michael Gaines, September 27, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

    The future of American football (soccer) is in the inner cities. There is an untapped pool of poor and working class kids, many of whom are priced out of opportunities to play select soccer; who do not have fields on which to play the game; and who have not been exposed to the game. These kids are overwhelmingly Black and Latino.

    The US will need more Latino players, but soccer is already a part of many Latino cultures, so they already have a leg up. This is not the case for American-born Black youth. I believe that Black youth in the inner-city would transform the game (just as they did with basketball, which very few Black youth played before WWII) given the right introduction. IMHO, the right introduction is futsal. Futsal only requires 5v5 (like basketball), it can be played on basketball courts, side streets, or school yard black tops, eliminating the need for greenspace. Futsal is faster with more goal scoring (all things that many Americans say full-sided soccer lacks), and forces the player to develop technically. Inner city futsal leagues could serve as an incubator for talent that could be identified for local youth soccer clubs and could spawn development of more inner city youth soccer clubs. In Brasil, the "street football" and futsal have lead to the development of many of its great players. Many of these players come from the poor favelas in the large cities. Ronaldinho is said to have been discovered as a teen because he was a great futsal player.

    Ultimately, America's strength in football will come from its diversity. It will take development of systems and programs that reach out and spread the game to more players from the poor and working classes, as well as including players from ethnic communities to weave a stronger fabric.

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