Why US soccer may be missing out on great Latino players

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Los Angeles is the center of American soccer this week.

The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) is holding its annual convention in downtown LA. It’s the first time the coaches have gathered in Southern California for their national meeting. A bit further south, U.S. Men’s National Team coach Bruce Arena has gathered 32 players for a training camp in Carson.

But it’s a stressful time for American soccer. As Mexico’s national team is taking charge of the region, U.S. soccer is wrestling with how to get more Latinos and Mexican Americans involved in organized soccer – at all levels of the game.

Many say the so-called “pay to play” American soccer system is to blame for the lack of Latino players. In the U.S., the parents of young players are expected to pay thousands of dollars a year to play on elite soccer clubs. This system is uncommon to the rest of the world and means that if a player can’t afford the pricey fee, he can’t participate.

Historically, few Latinos have been called into the national team. Coach Arena selected 32 players for the current camp, which is preparing the team for two friendly matches in the coming weeks. Only five players are Latino.

“Normally, what doesn’t get by us is when there is a great player somewhere,” says Tab Ramos, former US soccer great who now runs the national youth programs for U.S. Soccer. When a player gets recommended he is sent to one of the training centers they have around the country. However, scouts don’t make it into Latino neighborhoods, says Jesse Magallon, who runs the Izzys Laguna club in Santa Ana. This means some great players may never get in the system to begin with.

Sacha van der Most is a Dutch-born American citizen who scouts young American soccer players for the Mexican National Team. He’s critical of the system. “In my vision there is, like, a segregated structure,” he says, “between people who have money and don’t have money.” Many Latinos, and others who can’t afford to play in the elite clubs, get left out.

“I think the whole pay to play system has prohibited us from producing more top quality players,” says Landon Donovan, who started his youth career playing with a mostly Latino club in Southern California. He went on to become the all-time leading goal scorer for both the U.S. National Team and Major League Soccer.

Donovan was a young star in 2002 when the United States advanced to the Quarterfinals of the World Cup finals. They haven’t made it that far in the World Cup since. Many people in American soccer circles are concerned they won’t ever make that far again, if the system doesn’t change.