'Cubo' brightens the gloom at Chivas USA

By Ridge Mahoney

If video games can be construed as art, and if life imitates art, then the origin of Erick "Cubo" Torres’ goal celebration makes perfect sense.

Twenty-one times since he joined Chivas USA on loan from then-parent club Guadalajara in July 2013, he’s scored a goal. Just about every time he’s marked the occasion by performing “The Robot”: stiff, herky-jerky movements of the arms, torso, and head that emulate, supposedly, those of an artificial humanoid.

“It all goes back to when I was in the academy at Chivas Guadalajara,” explains Torres, a native of the city and a product of Mexico’s most popular club. “We used to play FIFA all the time and the players on the FIFA game used to celebrate like a robot. I was maybe 15 years old and I just decided I wanted to start celebrating that way because that was my favorite game.”

Hence he shares a nickname with an actual device, CUBO, unveiled by IZT Robotics eight years ago. This CUBO has wheels, not feet, and does not move his arms nor score goals as does Torres, but it does bear a perpetual smile, which mirrors a bright, sunny personality unspoiled by the kicks, grabs, elbows, and verbal abuse opponents often unleash to get him off his game.

Torres has only been in MLS 13 months yet his education has been intense. Last year he scored in his first two appearances and hit two goals apiece in back-to-back games before struggling through a barren patch of one goal in eight games, which earned Chivas USA its only win during that stretch: a 1-0 defeat of D.C. United, the league’s worst team.

The roller-coaster production honed him to the fickle fortunes that often beset scorers as he learned the demands and nuances of MLS. “The first six months I was here, I needed that to adapt,” he says.  “Now the last few months I’ve been here, I know how the defenders play, how the league is, and I’m just working hard to get better and improve and become a stronger player in the attack.”

Though the uniform he wears is similar to that of his hometown team, not much else is. Yet on and off the field his ability to cope is escalating. “I feel more used to the league, the language, the food,” he says. “That is something I need to continue to improve so I can also improve on the field.”

At 21, he’s one of the league’s young stars and probably the lone bright spot of what is unfolding as another dark season for Chivas USA. He’s not scored in the last four games and neither has his team, which has dropped down the Western Conference standings into last place after a surge propelled it to within touching distance of the playoff tier.

Yet Torres' determination and work ethic have yet to waver whether he scores one of his trademark spectacular goals or is shut out. His last-second winner July 5 against Montreal, for which he twisted his body to flick a deflected shot to shoulder height and then drilled a shot into the top corner with an overhead volley, would be outlandish in a video game. Several other spectacular goals and a place among the league's top marksmen haven't swelled his head.

“He’s growing and more mature,” said head coach Wilmer Cabrera after one of his team's 11 losses. “No doubt that he feels more comfortable and that is important for us. Obviously, today he couldn’t score but he was dangerous and he was working hard. We all need to support that work.”

Since buying the team from Chivas Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara in February for a reported $70 million, MLS has been working hard to find a new owner that will keep the team in the Los Angeles area. Since Torres is on loan from the big club in Mexico his status is more tenuous than that of his teammates. Vergara no longer owns Chivas USA, but Guadalajara owns this player’s rights, and if he keeps scoring goals it’s hard to imagine MLS retaining him whether or not the team is re-sold to another ownership group. He’s a great bargain – even in MLS -- at a listed salary of $152,004.

Former league executive Nelson Rodriguez, hired as Chivas USA president shortly after the sale was finalized, would like to think it’s possible Torres can stay in MLS, preferably with his current club. “There is a lot more upside to Erick than fans have even seen yet,” says Rodriguez. “For Wilmer and my part, we would love to keep him.

“Hopefully, we will speak to the new ownership and in the interim we speak with MLS on a regular basis and encourage them to exercise the option to secure his services beyond this year because we don’t see many talented, engaging, good-looking, 21-year-old goalscorers around. He’s only just begun to really learn his craft.”

Watching former Brazilian international Ronaldo inspired Torres, who takes a bold stand by proclaiming the one Mexican player he liked was Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a star for the national team as well as several clubs, including Chicago Fire, but never Guadalajara. Torres also mentions Paraguayan Jose Cardozo, the current head coach of Toluca who is the club’s all-time leading scorer with 249 goals.

“He played for [Club] America,” says Torres of Blanco and Guadalajara’s biggest rival, “so I couldn’t root for him fully, but he always one of the greatest players in my country and I always look out for him.”

Torres is still tied tightly to his native land, yet finds appealing certain quirks of the American sports scene. He stayed in Portland for a week to play in the All-Star Game and a league match; as a second-half sub against Bayern Munich, his flicked header fell for Bradley Wright-Phillips to lash home the equalizer in a 2-1 victory. At the end of the game, he exchanged jerseys with Bayern’s youngest player, Gianluca Gaudino, the 17-year-old son of former German international Maurizio Guadino.

“We have players from the top leagues in the world and it was a very good experience for us,” he says. “Bayern Munich is a tremendous team, a very important team, and they took the game very seriously. They competed well and it was just a fantastic opportunity for all of us.”

In his real job he may be laboring for a beleaguered team clouded by an uncertain future, but in the Northwest he savored a few days of stardom. “It was an unforgettable experience in my career and definitely marked a step,” he says. “It was an impressive atmosphere, from the game to outside the game to the city. There was a great welcome for every one of us.

“Even when I was walking on the street there were a few occasions where people stopped me and got pictures and photographs and autographs with me. I even saw a few people wearing the No. 9 jersey with my name on it, which was really great.”

Three days after the All-Star Game, the arduous grind of league play resumed, and on the same field Chivas USA lost again, 2-0. It fell behind early and generated just nine shots, only one of which was on goal. Torres took his team’s only shot of the first half. An optimistic effort at best, it missed by a dozen yards.

Following a 0-0 tie last weekend with Vancouver, he and Chivas USA haven’t scored since July 20. “The Robot” celebration may be getting rusty, but all Torres and his team can do is stick with the plan.

 “[Cabrera] tells me to continue working hard,” says Torres, “to continue trying to score goals in as many plays that will come my way, and to continue having fun out there, and just playing with heart.”

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