The Year of El Gato

FC Dallas' Mario Torres carries the hopes of Latino soccer fans. But is he the future--or just a cynical marketing ploy?

He also began lighting up the Dallas Latino leagues. Torres played three seasons with Universidad de Guanajuato. "He was out of this world," says Luis Godinez, the team sponsor. Torres began to work for Godinez as a full-time house painter, but his real occupation was soccer.

"He was playing everywhere," says friend Cynthia de la Torre. "Every weekend he would play, like, five games. It was insane."

Insane or not, in the Latino leagues it was not uncommon. Roster rules are lax where they exist at all, and top-flight players seldom bother to practice, instead showing up to play key games for a variety of different teams. Torres began playing all over the metroplex as teams clamored for his services.

In his farewell season for FC Dallas, Colombian star 
Oscar Pareja has served as a mentor for Torres and other 
young players.
Tom Jenkins
In his farewell season for FC Dallas, Colombian star Oscar Pareja has served as a mentor for Torres and other young players.
Roberto Castillo, the Latino league federation president, 
says FC Dallas has little to offer Latino fans.
Tom Jenkins
Roberto Castillo, the Latino league federation president, says FC Dallas has little to offer Latino fans.

In terms of participation, soccer is the second-most popular sport in America, trailing only basketball, but more than two-thirds of the estimated 18 million players in organized soccer leagues are under 17. Among Hispanics, however, soccer is a lifelong activity, and Latin adult leagues are booming. Dallas' PASA, for example, began in 1991 with 24 teams and now has more than 100. Only this year did the league begin a separate youth program. Games take place virtually every day of the week on every available field. Most are watched by a smattering of family and friends, but rivalry games, known as "clásicos," can draw crowds in the hundreds. Until this year, many of those games featured El Gato.

In a sense, Torres had finally begun his professional career. The Latino leagues are recreational in theory, but in practice the high talent level and the passion for the game raise the stakes, stretching the definition of "amateur." Elite players are often lured to teams with promises of soccer gear or hard cash.

"They would offer it to me," Torres says. "I took the soccer shoes or any gear that I needed to use in the game. I told them that I'll take money when it's my job."

Saul Rivera, president of the Irving Amateur Soccer League, says paying players is commonplace--and none of his business. "It's all about the money. All the stars do it," he says. "They collect a little money here and there. It's hard to control that." Important games can inspire offers in the hundreds of dollars.

As Torres began to play farther afield, he did accept money for road expenses--and then for plane fare. A team in New Orleans flew him in for several weekends last year, paying for his travel, hotel and $300 to $500 pocket money in return for his services on the field. Torres enjoyed the trips but saved most of the money. "It's a party town," he says, "but I couldn't go out late before the games."

In short, Torres was set. He was making $100 a day painting and playing all the soccer he could handle, but he wasn't satisfied. Clashing with his high school coach, living at home, settling for a GED, none of these elements seems to suggest any burning ambition, any particularly stubborn self-confidence--but somehow both had taken hold of Torres and wouldn't let go.

"I knew I was meant to be playing soccer," he says. "I was working harder than anybody else. I would always train on my own, while the other players would just show up to games." Godinez noticed, and began to pull some strings. Through acquaintances he arranged a tryout for Torres with Atlas, a Mexican first-division team in Guadalajara. The two-week trial in fall 2003 didn't lead to a contract, but Torres was asked to stay and practice with the team until the next round of signings two months later, in December. The dream was in reach.

Then he got hurt. "I was running late and didn't stretch out like I should have, and I pulled my groin," Torres says. It was his first serious injury playing soccer since a teammate's accidental kick to the head gave him a prominent scar above his right eye at age 10. This time there was no blood, but the damage was much greater: Torres could no longer practice with Atlas, then struggling through a dismal season. When the coach was fired, Torres was informed by his successor that he was welcome to try out all over again. Still hampered by the injury, Torres came home to Carrollton.

After he recovered, Torres resumed his ferocious playing schedule. During the summer of 2004, he traveled to Greenville at the invitation of Quiros, the league president, to play in a tournament. Torres had a phenomenal outing, notching three goals and an assist en route to the tournament title. Nothing more might have come of it had the newly minted FC Dallas Hispanic Marketing Director Julio Cano not also been invited by Quiros--and had the Burn itself not been in dire straits.

FCD (then still the Dallas Burn) was on its way to missing the playoffs for the second year in a row--no mean feat in a 10-team league with an eight-team playoff. What's worse, attendance had tanked, and the Latino community had been thoroughly alienated. Dallas was looking for a lifeline, and in the stellar play of Torres, Cano had found it. Through Quiros he arranged an October tryout for El Gato.

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