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?

Yet team critics are outraged. "That is the biggest tragedy," says Pelaez, the former FC Dallas assistant coach, shaking his head. "[Pareja] is a gentleman, but I can tell you that inside he is totally destroyed." Even Torres, who accepts his own reserve status with a shrug and a grin, gets fired up about Pareja. "He's incredible," Torres says. "He's the best player here, and I don't see why he doesn't start."

It is hardly surprising that the FC Dallas staff is a little defensive these days, even as they sit atop the standings. When asked about the problem of flagging Latino support, Clarke responds in mock astonishment, "Do we have a problem with the Latinos?"

"You can call it whatever you want," assistant coach Haines says when asked of the problem. "If you have a winning formula, that should be supported."

Tom Jenkins
Adjusting to the speed of the pro game has been a 
challenge for Torres, but he is confident he will play for 
the first team this season.
Tom Jenkins
Adjusting to the speed of the pro game has been a challenge for Torres, but he is confident he will play for the first team this season.

Just how important is repairing the breach for FC Dallas' future? Castillo's federation, which is by no means all-inclusive, encompasses 12 leagues with more than 800 teams. That's roughly 16,000 players, not to mention family, friends and neighbors. As Chaves puts it, "You can fill up the whole stadium if they support you."

Despite the inept handling of its fan base, one could argue that some of FC Dallas' problems are not of its own making. In fact, the MLS as a whole has had a rocky relationship with Latino fans ever since it began play in 1996.

At first, Latinos turned out in droves for MLS games, partly because of the league's initial effort to sign big-name Latino stars such as Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry. Perhaps more important was that, at long last, a professional sports league had appeared in America that actually considered Latinos among its core constituency. Spanish speakers in the front offices and at the ticket windows joined those on the field. The league predicted an average attendance of 10,000 to 12,000 for its first season, but got more than 17,000 per game.

Problem was, the games weren't very good. After the high-priced foreign veterans and a few top-flight American players seasoned in Europe, the quality of the players plummeted. College players used to hand-holding coaches and postgame keggers just didn't have the speed and skill to dazzle the paying public. Spectators left disappointed, either accustomed to the high-powered professional soccer abroad or unaccustomed to watching a game that didn't feature their own children.

Only the deep pockets of the league's investors kept the MLS afloat through its first few seasons. As time went on, however, their pockets remained deep but their arms grew shorter. Signing aging Latino stars to lucrative contracts became less attractive than investing in home-grown talent, a first step toward bringing American soccer in line with the world game.

The standard U.S. model of athletic progression, high school to college to pros, produces 21-year-old rookies. In world soccer, 21 is middle-aged. Oscar Pareja, 36, is in his eighth and final season for Dallas--and his 19th as a professional. "In South America, when you're 20 years old, you already have 100 games as a professional," Pareja says.

In 1997, after a pathetic first-round exit by the U.S. men's Olympic team, MLS and the U.S. Soccer Association joined forces to create the Project-40 program. The program recruits players as young as 13 into the professional ranks, guaranteeing them a college scholarship if they don't make it in the bigs. Project-40 has since been a runaway success, producing stars such as Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, but the league still relies heavily on the college draft, a pool in which Latinos are egregiously underrepresented.

Their absence is reflected in the style of play. "The MLS is a hard league for Latin guys," Pareja says. Soccer in Latin America is played emphasizing ball skills and creative opportunism. "We have a different feel for soccer. We have 'toque, toque' ("touch, touch"), where we keep the ball and we're patient with it, and our fans appreciate it. They don't demand that we go straight to the goal."

FC Dallas, like most MLS teams, plays what is considered English-style soccer. The approach is based on physical play and aggressively challenging the defense by working the ball constantly forward, with long balls through the air or one-touch passes. "Is it good or bad?" Pareja asks. "No, it's just different."

But others aren't so sure. Castillo complains that the English style is unimaginative. "It lacks art," he says. "It's all about speed and strength. There's no spark." Pelaez, too, is convinced the Latino style is superior. "If I'm wrong with this, why are the Brazilians six-time world champions and not the English?" he asks. His argument is bolstered by the fact that in its otherwise promising 10th season, MLS as a whole is still grappling with the need to attract more Latino fans.

Even critics will concede that the European style has its benefits. "The American player has tremendous tactical discipline," Pelaez says. "They are well-educated and disciplined like hell." The emphasis on speed also demands that players stay in superb shape. Both are weaknesses of the Latino style. "With that kind of discipline and physical conditioning, who could stop us?" Castillo says almost wistfully.

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