Country First: Some Players Must Pick
Friday, October 10, 2008
Under normal circumstances, Jose Francisco Torres probably would not have been invited to the U.S. national soccer team's training camp in Washington this week, the buildup to a pair of World Cup qualifiers. At age 20, he has played regularly for his pro club for just a year and was never part of the national youth system.
But because Torres is eligible to play for both the United States and Mexico, the region's dominant programs and increasingly fierce rivals, he was invited to practice with the American squad and, in all likelihood, will appear in either tomorrow night's match against Cuba at RFK Stadium or Wednesday's qualifier at Trinidad and Tobago.
Once a player enters a senior national team game in an official FIFA competition, switching allegiances is no longer possible. For players who have represented a country in official games at a junior level, they have until age 21 to petition FIFA, the sport's world governing body, to change affiliations.
Though born and raised in the eastern Texas city of Longview, Torres is eligible to represent Mexico because of his father's roots. And having evolved into a starter for Pachuca, one of the Mexican league's most decorated clubs, he has appeared on the Mexican national team's radar.
"At first, people tried to convince me to stay in Mexico -- they didn't want me to come to the U.S. for this training camp -- but I already had my mind made up," Torres said. "It's my choice and I made it. My dream was always to play for the U.S. national team."
He braced himself for negative reaction in Mexico, and while there was some from fans and Pachuca officials, "it wasn't too bad. They had a poll on TV during one of our games, asking if I made the right choice, and most people thought I did," he said.
Torres, who at 5 feet 5 is nicknamed the "Mosquito," is not the only player in camp to choose between countries this year. Defender Michael Orozco, a Southern California native, has Mexican-born parents and is a starter for Mexican club San Luis. He committed to the U.S. program and started for the under-23 national team at the Olympics, ending his Mexican eligibility.
U.S. officials view both Torres and Orozco as legitimate national candidates in need of experience at the highest level.
"The situation is unique because they are eligible for two countries. So you are balancing those issues with whether the player is ready for the national team," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said.
Millions of Mexican immigrants have come to the United States, and they've brought a passion for soccer with them. For their children who are elite players, there are emotional ties to both countries.
Edgar Castillo, 22, is from Las Cruces, N.M., plays for Mexican club Santos Laguna and represents Mexico. Sammy Ochoa, born in Mexico, raised in Southern California and a member of Mexican club Tecos, started for the United States at the Under-20 World Cup three years ago but has yet to play for the U.S. national team. Several other young Americans with Mexican heritage who play for Mexican clubs are in similar situations, though they are, at best, prospects for the U.S. program and long shots for Mexico, which has a deeper player pool.
"I knew I would have more opportunities with the U.S. team," said Orozco, who was discovered by Mexican club Necaxa before moving to San Luis. "In Mexico, it's very political, it surrounds everything. My club is not very well known and that makes it harder to get onto the national team."
Torres played organized soccer in Texas but didn't make an impression with U.S. scouts. He was recruited by Pachuca and, at age 16, left for Mexico to join the youth system. This season, he has started about half of the league games. U.S. coaches attempted to persuade him to commit in time for the Olympics, but Torres said he wasn't ready. Last week, he pledged his allegiance.
"The first day I was nervous," he said of his time in training camp. "I didn't really know anybody. I was thinking, 'Man, what if they are hard on me?' But they are treating me well and I am starting to fit in."