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The Year of El Gato

Tom Jenkins

Mario Torres doesn't look like a publicity stunt. With unruly, spiky hair, a crooked grin and freckles, he doesn't come off as a role model, either. In fact, the 23-year-old's wiry frame hardly seems sturdy enough to support his own dreams, let alone those of Dallas' Hispanic community and its professional soccer franchise. Yet even as Torres fills a canvas bag with loose soccer balls, cleaning up after practice, he is all of those things. His status as a rookie obligates him to carry the equipment bag, but his status as a local and a Latino means he must shoulder a different kind of load, one heavier than he ever imagined.

Torres is in his first year as a midfielder on the reserve squad of FC Dallas, the Major League Soccer (MLS) affiliate formerly known as the Dallas Burn. He has yet to play a minute with the first team, and his salary, while he won't give an exact figure, is "not enough to live on." But as the first player ever signed to the Dallas roster straight from the local Latino leagues, Torres is an experiment whose outcome could determine the future of professional soccer in Dallas.

"He is the pride of the Hispanic community," says Miguel Quiros, president of the Latino soccer league in Greenville, some 50 miles northeast of Dallas, one of many amateur leagues where Torres built a reputation as "El Gato"--"The Cat"--so called for his green eyes. Quiros was instrumental in getting Torres his shot at the pros, and sees him as the ideal fix for the strained relationship between FC Dallas and the Latino community that should be its strongest fan base. "He is the best calling card for the league to show that they are giving opportunities to Latinos," Quiros says.

Another key supporter in the political, fanatical world of Dallas' Latino soccer leagues was Luis Godinez. Godinez is the financial patron of Universidad de Guanajuato, a team in Dallas' Pan-American Soccer Association (PASA) that Torres led to two league championships. "He's got a noble character," Godinez says of Torres. "He's friendly, intelligent and focused in everything he does."

Not everyone is so excited about Torres' chances with FC Dallas, however. Roberto Castillo is president of a federation of 12 Latino leagues. "I don't want to be negative, but the whole thing just looks like more public relations," Castillo says. Torres starred in many of Castillo's leagues, playing for as many as five teams at once. "There are a lot of very good players, and he was one of them," Castillo says of Torres. "I wouldn't say he was the best." Armando Pelaez, a former assistant coach for FC Dallas, says the physical, pressing style of play in MLS is ill-suited to Latino players like Torres, who rely more on individual skill and improvisation. "Gato will never see one minute playing in the whole history of the MLS," he says.

But the eyes of Dallas' Latino community are not the only ones fixed on El Gato. Torres is also called on to represent his community on a team dominated by Anglos. "He understands the responsibility," says FCD teammate and mentor Oscar Pareja, a veteran professional from Colombia. "He understands that we represent the Latin community. Everything we do here, me and Mario and the other Latin guys, they're going to think that that's what Latinos are like."

Torres says that he doesn't mind the scrutiny--most of the time. "There are a few people that didn't like me before and obviously don't like me at all now," he says. "Those are people that are just jealous."

The pressure Torres feels most comes from within. He had his first opportunity to play professionally thwarted by his move to the United States at age 12, and another ended by injury. Now, at 23, he has no time to waste. "I think this is my last chance to play pro," Torres says. "Knowing that this is my last chance, it goes through my mind, 'What am I going to do if this doesn't work out?'"


For many Mexican families, the United States is the land of opportunity, and the Torres family was no exception--except for Mario. When the family of five immigrated to Dallas from Chihuahua in 1994, the 12-year-old Torres, the oldest of four children, left behind an invitation to attend the soccer academy of Club America, a powerhouse professional team based in Mexico City. While there was no guarantee that Torres would have emerged from the boarding school as a professional soccer player, the invitation was a clear signal of his talent--and an opportunity missed.

"Sometimes I look back and wish that I would have gone," Torres says. His parents, too, would come to wonder if they had done the right thing. Torres' desire to play soccer was undiminished, while the language barrier at school soon quashed any appetite for academics.  

Torres scraped by in school but was a standout on the field, playing varsity his freshman year at Howard Turner High School in Carrollton. A transfer to Coppell High the next year, however, saw him relegated to the junior varsity squad as a sophomore. Though he was among the best on the team, Torres saw little playing time, and he began to question his new coach's judgment. Frustrated with soccer and bored with school, Torres dropped out in 2000, his junior year, intending to finish high school in Mexico. Instead, he returned to the United States to work and eventually earned his GED.

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 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.

"Everything went right that day," Torres says of the tryout. He netted two goals in a scrimmage. "There were other guys trying out, but they were trying to show off too much," Torres recalls. "You can tell right away if someone can play or not. What I did, I played simple. I just took my shots when I got the chance."

Torres was invited back to practice, then to spring training camp and then, after outlasting three rounds of cuts, to sign a developmental contract. Being a rare left-footed player helped, but it was Torres' attitude that carried the day. "He was just a stringy, piano-wire guy, but he was hard," assistant coach Brian Haines remembers. "He never quit on a play."


Torres' successful tryout was just one step on what the FC Dallas front office hopes is the road back from the brink of irrelevance. Radical changes--in roster, in ownership, in venue and in management--over the previous two seasons had all been changes for the worse. "The tryout basically started because we had our backs to the wall," sums up Victor Chaves, Cano's predecessor with the club.

The principal culprit was the venue change. The team, under its old name the Dallas Burn, left its cavernous but convenient home at the Cotton Bowl to play the 2003 season at a high school football stadium in Southlake, 30 miles north of Dallas. The move was meant to save money while a new soccer-specific stadium in Frisco was built, but it turned into a public relations fiasco. The artificial surface and permanent football lines on the field made the team a second-class citizen in its own home.

"It's like bringing the Stars to play at the Galleria," Chaves says. "You start to think, 'Do they know soccer at all?'"

The move had been decreed by new team owner Lamar Hunt of Hunt Sports Group. Hunt owns two other MLS teams, the relatively successful Columbus Crew and the dismal Kansas City Wiz, as well as the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. Hunt pushed out popular Burn General Manager Andy Swift, described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as "first and foremost a soccer guy," to be replaced by Greg Elliott, fresh from--the horror--the NHL.

The turf and the turmoil eroded the club's level of play, leaving it out of the playoffs for two seasons, the second under new coach Colin Clarke, a former player for Northern Ireland's international team who was promoted from assistant when his predecessor Mike Jeffries was fired. Clarke's apparent preference for Anglo players made him, in the words of Latino league federation President Roberto Castillo, "a bit of a racist." The perception was reinforced as the number of Latino players on the roster dwindled.

"You go from having Hugo Sanchez, and I think it was maybe seven on the roster, down to one or two players that were primarily reserves," Elliott says. "It also was compounded by the fact that the team was awful."

Chaves is even more blunt. "They really basically did everything wrong," he says. Even a tryout for local players he arranged in April 2004 backfired. "The coaching staff was there for, like, 10 minutes and went home," Chaves says. "It was a good gesture, but it wasn't handled properly." Moving back to the Cotton Bowl last year hardly helped: Attendance climbed from a pathetic 7,729 per game to only 9,088, still the worst in the league. The average so far this season is 9,614 in five home games (a figure for the May 18 Colorado game was not available).  

This year, several more adroit moves, including the signing of Torres, ought to have at least staunched the bleeding. The name change, from the Burn to FC Dallas, with its "Football Club" prefix, evokes images of prestigious foreign teams rather than a prickly rash. Signing Guatemalan superstar Carlos Ruiz has returned at least a touch of Latin flavor to the starting lineup, and with the best record in MLS, it would seem that no one could argue with the team's performance.

Or how about everyone. "Everybody thinks that FC Dallas sucks," says Irving league President Saul Ramirez. "The level that they have is a really poor level. I've been trying; I've been giving away free tickets, but there's no chemistry between the team and the people." The numbers don't lie: Elliott says that walk-up ticket sales, which are predominantly to Latinos, have dwindled from highs of around 3,000 per game to "in the hundreds." Attendance remains flat even though some 20 percent of tickets are either given away or sold at a discount.

One example of how little slack Latino fans are cutting FCD these days is the case of Oscar Pareja. The 36-year-old veteran has seen limited action so far this season and announced his retirement on June 10, effective at the end of the season. Pareja, an immensely respected, thoughtful and deadly effective midfielder who was the team MVP in 2001 and 2002, has said all along that the retirement is his choice. "I want to quit when I feel like I can play," Pareja says in his soft, measured voice. "I want to quit when the people still feel like I can do it. Don't wait until they say, 'What are you doing? Just quit! You're no good anymore!'"

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."

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.

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.

"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."

True, Garcia doesn't speak for everyone, a fact of which Torres is well aware. "There's a lot of Latinos that think the MLS is crap, that think there are better players on these local teams than there are in the MLS," he admits. "I'd tell them, 'Come see him in practice. Get on the field and try to do what he does. You can't.'"

Torres is confident, however, that he can. "I know I'm going to be there," he says with absolute conviction. "I'll be the best on the team and the best in the league." If he does successfully marry the English-style soccer of MLS and the flashy individual skills so cherished by Latinos, El Gato could point the way to a more harmonious future for professional soccer in America. That's a lot of pressure to put on the skinny, affable kid from Carrollton, but Torres' approach seems to have served him well so far: Just keep working, and good things will happen.


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