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?

Demographics alone dictate that in the future, U.S. soccer will become more of a combination of both styles. "You've got to do the mix--and you've got to have somebody as a coach that can mold that mentality," Pelaez says in a thinly veiled criticism of Clarke.

Torres hopes that by becoming the embodiment of the hybrid style he will have the advantages of both sides. "I could go to Mexico and be a different player," he says. "There are a lot of skill players in Mexico but not as many strong and fast players."

This vision of returning in triumph to Mexico gives Torres' voice an unconscious intensity, and highlights yet another difference between the Latino and American approaches to soccer--the power of obsession. "I think Americans become professional soccer players as a consequence of being an exceptional player," Pareja says. "In their early years they were playing soccer maybe not as their number one competitive sport. They are soccer players now because they were good in college and realized they could be professionals.

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.

"In South America, you dream every day of being a soccer player."

"I'm actually kind of upset," Torres says as he looks down at the field through the glass. He is in the press box of the Cotton Bowl, watching his team take on hapless Chivas USA. The admission comes out slowly, as if Torres is surprised at himself for caring. "I thought I played well on Sunday [in the reserve game], and then some guys that didn't play so well make the bench." Indeed, Alex Woods, who on the preceding Sunday had looked lost at times against the L.A. Galaxy reserves, is parked on the metal bench far below at the bottom of the Bowl.

His eyes following the action on the field, Torres goes on to describe the pregame routine. "You come into the locker room, and you look for your jersey hanging on your locker. If it's there, you're playing. If it's not..." Torres says, looking up, "you're up here.

"I was really hoping it would be there," he says. "But I've just got to keep working."

Little in Torres' years of being the best on the field in the Latino leagues has prepared him for the frustrations of professional life. "You know what happened with Mario?" Pareja says. "He came to me on his first day and he said, 'I've never practiced with a serious team.' He had never practiced where it was organized and you do it every day. He said, 'I saw practice as a recreational thing.' I was like, 'How can that happen in this country? How can that happen when you have this talent?'"

Pareja is unsparing in his criticism of Torres. "He has to speed up his game a little bit. He has to play with more intensity. He has to become stronger physically. He knows the game, but he has more to learn." But the veteran from Medellín is just as confident in his final assessment. "I think he's learning quickly and he's going to get his chance, because the coaches like him. I know he's going to make it--but if you had asked me three months ago, even two months ago, I wouldn't have been sure."

If it turns out that Pareja is wrong, there's always modeling. Torres' career took an unexpected twist when he showed up earlier this year to have his picture taken for an article in El Sol de Tejas, a Dallas-based Spanish-language newspaper. The paper's editor, Rogelio Santillan, was in the midst of another project, one that he holds dear to his heart: the first locally produced fotonovela.

Fotonovelas are essentially comic books that use photos rather than drawings, and typically have a dramatic plot line similar to their better-known siblings telenovelas. Santillan was supervising a photo shoot for the fotonovela, and he noticed Torres' interest--and his magnetism.

"He has a lot of charisma," Santillan says of Torres. "He has a great presence, that spark." When Torres asked if he could participate, Santillan readily agreed--and gave Torres the leading male role. Now every so often, Torres is transformed into "Carlos Xaloc," a university student and athlete caught up in a love triangle in the pages of Idilio Azul, or Blue Idyll. Santillan plans to produce 5,000 copies of the first issue this summer.

As for FC Dallas, its hope may lie as much with Juan Garcia as it does with Mario Torres. Garcia is co-leader of La Raza Latina, essentially a Latino booster club for FC Dallas. He and anywhere from 20 to 50 of his colleagues come to every home game equipped with drums, horns, tambourines and hand-painted signs, and provide the kind of electricity that all the Jumbotrons in the world cannot. Though La Raza is only a shadow of its former hundreds-strong self, Garcia is ecstatic that his team is leading the league, and leaves no doubt as to what he thinks the results will be.

"Even if nobody from their country is playing, even if it was purely Americans, if they keep winning, people will come," Garcia declares. "There are a lot of Mexicans in La Raza Latina, even though we don't really have a really renowned Mexican player. We have everybody. We're in Dallas, and it's our team."

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