In Jairo Guevara’s new world, the weather is cooler, the forests are thicker and mountains clutter the horizon. He misses his family and friends, and has had to confront the anxiety of attending a new high school.
“But if I want to become a pro soccer player,” he said, “I have to do it.”
Guevara has lived almost all of his 15 3/4 years in the D.C. metro area and thrived in the Alexandria Soccer Association. But because he is fixated on a career in a sport he has been playing since he was a tot — and because he needed a pro environment to elevate his level — he moved cross-country this month and joined the Portland Timbers academy.
Hundreds of teenagers are enrolled in such MLS development programs, which offer year-round training and, for a select few, a homegrown contract. Most are from regions where there is an MLS team. In increasing numbers, some have relocated because no MLS organization is close by. (North Carolina is particularly fertile ground for league scouts.)
But there are also players like Guevara, who is seeking opportunity with a team far from home after his local club, D.C. United, turned him down.
“I did want to stay [in D.C.], but I got this opportunity in Portland,” he said. “It was whoever was going to accept me.”
Guevara is playing for the Timbers’ under-16/17 team. He lives in a group house with some other academy players that is supervised, for the time being, by his 33-year-old coach, former pro Ryan Miller. (Two full-time residency managers have been hired and will move in once necessary paperwork is completed.) Guevara is a sophomore at a public high school, taking the bus each morning and afternoon, then receiving transportation provided by the team to academy headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., for practices and homework sessions. A minor knee injury currently has him sidelined.
Is he a genuine pro prospect? Certainly not at the moment. Could he develop into one? Maybe. Most academy players parlay their experience into college scholarships but aren’t good enough for the next step.
Guevara will spend at least a year with the Timbers. The club will then decide whether to continue the arrangement.
“We feel a responsibility to the player to commit to a minimum of one year when a player makes a move like this,” said Larry Sunderland, Portland’s youth technical director. “It’s proper from the educational, social and soccer side of things.”
If, at some point, the Timbers project Guevara as a pro prospect, they would have to acquire his homegrown rights from United, which, despite passing on the player, retains territorial ties. A minor trade involving financial considerations would probably suffice.
With its centralized business structure, MLS frowns upon teams raiding the established geographic territories of others. But if a player sees opportunity outside the immediate area, and if the teams involved discuss the matter, the league won’t stand in the way. With a territorial pool shallower than several teams, Portland must look beyond the region.
In Guevara’s case, D.C. and Portland talked and, Sunderland said: “We agreed this player could use a change of scenery for various reasons. In the end, we all felt it was a good opportunity for the player.”
United had given Guevara a tryout last month but “he just wasn’t going to break through,” said Ryan Martin, D.C.’s academy director. “We felt with the depth of the kids in midfield and attacking position, it just wasn’t going to happen for him.”
Aside from local circles, United’s academy has drawn from North Carolina, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and South Florida. Those players live with host families (who already have their own kids in the program) or in a supervised group house. Six were placed at Calverton School in Southern Maryland, while others take online classes.
Guevara was introduced to D.C. coaches by Patrick Nyarko, a former United midfielder who had watched him perform in an adult league. After United passed on Guevara, Nyarko turned to Sunderland, Chicago’s academy chief when Nyarko starred for the Fire years ago.
Guevara passed the test in Portland, then returned home to pack his bags for Oregon. He withdrew from T.C. Williams High School and said goodbye to his Honduran-born mother and Salvadoran-born father. (He is U.S. born.)
Guevara also left an Alexandria program that had nurtured him since he was 6, providing badly needed support that included financial aid and personal guidance through the Access4All Project for underprivileged children. (About 30 percent of ASA’s 5,000 registered players are from low-income households, many in the Latino immigrant community.)
“They helped me through a lot of stuff, tough times,” Guevara said.
Guevara’s development, ASA executive director Tommy Park said, was enhanced by the league’s use of futsal, a version of soccer, played on a hard surface, that emphasizes creativity and ball control. With Guevara, ASA teams won two futsal national championships.
Last year, ASA sent Guevara to Brazil for two weeks to attend a youth camp run by Cruzeiro, a first-tier club in Belo Horizonte.
“We’re proud of what we think is the best place to grow and learn,” Park said, “but we’re not a professional team. He’s in Portland to become a pro.”
As for chasing his dream in Oregon instead of D.C., Guevara said United’s rejection “doesn’t really bother me at all.”
“But they are going to regret not picking me up.”