With lovely Pacific coastline and rugged terrain framing the one-hour journey back to the U.S. border, Luis Silva let his mind wander to the two dozen children who had warmed his heart.
Christmas was approaching, and the D.C. United forward had joined his uncle, aunt and cousin in delivering gifts and supplies to the Buena Vida orphanage in La Mision, a pixel of a village between Tijuana and Ensenada on the Baja California peninsula.
Like many pro athletes, Silva does community service during the season. His offseason outreach is fueled by a mix of benevolence, religious duty and empathy for those who share his Mexican blood and are in danger of being forgotten.
“My family always tried to stay humble and remember what we’d been through,” he said of his simple beginnings in Los Angeles. “I have a big thing about giving back every time. I always said, if I ever make it, even if it’s not in a big way, I am always going to do something any way I can.”
When 2014 turned into 2015, Silva returned to La Mision (population 1,058). This time, there were no awkward introductions or shy glances. Since the last visit, several children had friended him on Facebook.
“They don’t say hi or shake your hand,” he said. “They give you a big hug.”
For several years, Silva, 26, has visited public schools and hospitals in Los Angeles, as well as Bishop Mora Salesian High, the prep school where he honed his soccer skills and earned a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara.
At RFK Stadium, a large cardboard box sits on the top shelf on his locker. In black marker, it’s labeled “Donations for the Silva Foundation. Cleats only please.” No foundation exists — it’s a personal endeavor — but on trips to Los Angeles, he distributes the footwear and other gear to disadvantaged youth.
“He is always searching for those extra cleats,” teammate Chris Pontius said. “When we think cleats have gone bad, they’re not really bad. People could still probably get a year’s worth of use out of them. He has found a way to make them go a long way.”
United, which has donated equipment to El Salvador and elsewhere for years, contributes to Silva’s efforts. On last season’s trip to Los Angeles to play the Galaxy, he packed an extra duffel with cleats, water bottles and posters.
Silva knows firsthand the challenges of growing up in the inner city.
He was born in southwestern Mexico and arrived in Southern California when he was an infant. He lived in at least six different low-income apartments.
“My parents didn’t make a lot of money, so we lived wherever we could afford, which was always a gang-related neighborhood,” said Silva, a U.S. citizen for about 15 years. “They did a good job taking me to practice and staying focused. Soccer was my way out. A lot of friends weren’t as fortunate. They ended up in jail or hurt. It was hard, but I had support.”
Over the years, his father, Saul, worked the fields, waited tables, did maintenance jobs and unloaded grocery shipments. His mother, Maria, still cooks at a fast-food restaurant. His parents split. For a time, he lived with an uncle, Leo. Another uncle, Oscar, introduced him to soccer.
Aside from high school, Silva played for the Pateadores club and an under-19 program run by Chivas USA, the MLS team that disbanded last year.
As a freshman at UCSB, among his teammates was Pontius, a senior at the time and now United’s longest-serving player. Silva started most every match over four seasons and, in his final year, was third in the country in points (44) with 17 goals and 10 assists to garner first-team all-American honors.
Drafted fourth overall by Toronto FC, Silva was among MLS’s top rookies in 2012, making 22 starts and posting five goals and five assists.
That season, however, was marred by grief and an arrest.
In June, his father suffered a stroke. Silva spent 10 days at his bedside, though Saul Silva remained unconscious. Luis rejoined the team in Kansas City. On the morning of the match, he received word that his father, age 52, had died. Despite the emotional punch, he remained with the squad and entered in the second half.
He planned to accompany the team to Texas for a midweek game, then fly to California for his father’s viewing. Out late in Houston, he and two teammates got mixed up in an altercation outside a nightclub and were arrested for public intoxication, a misdemeanor. His mug shot appeared in Toronto media.
He fought the charge, which was dropped.
Still, at the time of the arrest, “I was at my lowest point,” he said. “My dad, the incident. After that, I took a big step in my life. I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want to do or do I want to change?’ I had made it, but my mind wasn’t focused; it wasn’t right.”
Silva was raised Catholic, but over time, his faith had faded. In Toronto, he was reintroduced to religion by his barber, an Iraqi refugee named Athir Moshi, a Christian. “He talked to me about God and living right,” Silva said.
(These days, when United plays in Toronto, Moshi drops by the team hotel with an electric clipper and spiritual nourishment.)
In 2013, scoreless through 14 matches, Silva was shipped to last-place United for financial considerations. He embraced the move, scoring in each of his first three matches and becoming a key tool in United’s rebuilding project.
In his first full season in Washington last year, Silva shared the team scoring lead with Fabian Espindola (11 goals apiece) as United executed the greatest turnaround in MLS history. All of Silva’s goals came in a 16-game span, most while Espindola nursed a knee injury. Silva’s own setback, a strained hamstring, sidelined him in the playoffs.
During the offseason, his uncle Leo approached him about helping an orphanage he had learned about through a co-worker. Initially, Silva was going to sponsor a child. Then he was asked to visit. The first trip led to a second visit and delivery of additional supplies, such as clothes and towels.
United Coach Ben Olsen and most teammates were unaware until recently that Silva’s efforts had spread over the border.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit,” Olsen said. “He’s a real warm guy, someone who looks out for the unfortunate.”
When training camp opened, Silva experienced a series of injuries to his right leg: the hamstring, then the quadriceps and calf and the hamstring again. He and the club were baffled. Silva missed all of preseason and three MLS matches, plus both legs of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. A blood test revealed a vitamin deficiency.
In his debut, two weeks ago in Orlando, he entered late in the game and scored on a free kick during stoppage time for a 1-0 victory . In all, Silva has played 49 minutes as a sub in three games and is close to returning to the starting lineup.
When the season ends, Silva plans to reconnect with family in Oaxaca, his parents’ home state and his birthplace. It has been 16 years.
And without question, he will visit the orphanage again.
“The biggest thing is the smiles,” he said. “You don’t forget the smiles.”