The Year of El Gato

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.

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Rick Kennedy

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