MLS hopefuls believe in the 'dream'
Young Latin players, including three from the L.A area, seek spots through "Sueño MLS"
CARSON, Calif. -- It's all about dreams, and the 15 young men who have gathered this week at the Home Depot Center don't need to look far to find others just like themselves who held the same dreams and saw them realized beyond all expectation.
There's Jorge Flores, the Chivas USA winger from Anaheim. And there's Gabriel Funes, who is making his mark at Buenos Aires giant River Plate.
The fourth edition of Sueño MLS, Major League Soccer's annual search for Latino talent, hits the finish line Sunday when, on Univision's "Republica Deportivo" television program, one player will be invited to join an MLS club's "academy" program. From there, anything is possible.
Just ask Flores.
He was just 17 when he won the first competition in 2007, and he was with the big club -- the team that plays in MLS -- just a year later.
"I always wanted to be a professional player, but I knew in the U.S. a lot of players go to a university [before they turn pro]," Flores says. "I was hoping to go to college, but this opportunity came out, and it worked out good."
"Sueño" means "dream" in Spanish, and the 15 finalists -- five each from tryouts organized by the Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo -- dream of becoming the next Jorge Flores, but the competition among them requires that they work together. MLS Technical Director Alfonso Mondelo, along with former U.S. national team star Marcelo Balboa and Peruvian legend Teofilo Cubillas, has organized them into a team, and they're being assessed in games against "academy" teams from the Galaxy and Chivas USA and in training.
The Galaxy quintet includes three players from Greater L.A.:
• Javier Castro, 18, of Pomona, a Guadalajara-born target forward who plays "academy" soccer for Temecula's mighty Arsenal FC.
• Victor Jimenez, 16, of Anaheim, a winger who has starred for Savanna High School and in Sunday-league soccer but could never afford to play club ball.
• Jonathan Navas, 18, from Los Angeles' Mid-City district, a Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in L.A. two years ago and plays primarily in Sunday adult leagues.
All of them impressed scouts with their technical ability, understanding of the game and passion for the sport during two-day tryouts last month in Glendale and a week playing with the Galaxy's "academy" teams.
"We're looking for a kid that can maybe step up and play in an 'academy' team, that has a future possibly in MLS," says Balboa, a National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee and three-time World Cup defender from Cerritos. "A kid that's got heart -- I think that's most important, [that] he's got passion. And everything else falls along with it: the technical ability, the ability to read the game.
"You can see these kids are very technical. Now it's about who can handle the pressure in front of the coaches, because it's a contest, and all these kids know it. It's about who can handle the nerves, and not always the best players can."
It is a contest, very much so. Univision -- KMEX/Channel 34 in Los Angeles -- presents it as a "reality" show weekly on "Republica Deportivo." That adds to the pressure on the players, and those determining the winner are aware of that.
"It's difficult for the kids," says Mondelo, a Spanish-born coach who has been in charge of two MLS teams and was an assistant to Bruce Arena during his tenure as U.S. national team coach. "They're a little nervous, a little apprehensive -- there's a lot of excitement building up to this event. ... [You want to see] who's going to rise to the top, who's going to be able to handle this pressure and show his ability."
Flores did well with the pressure, and his performance led him to the U.S. under-20 national team and in 2008 a roster spot with Chivas.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "That's what I wanted, and I had it. I was very happy."
Funes, the son of former Argentine pro Miguel Funes, won a chance in 2008 to play in FC Dallas' system, but he returned home to Buenos Aires and has quickly risen in one of South America's most storied clubs.
Finding another Flores or Funes is unlikely, but Balboa notes that two of the four past winners have quickly become pros. Playing "academy" soccer in U.S. Soccer's Development Academy, which has transformed player development in youth clubs since its 2007 formation, is one path to the pros.
"To find a guy who can just come in and make an impact at the professional level is not easy," Mondelo says. "There are those players with rare talent who can come in and make it, so you look for that. You hope this program gives these kids an opportunity they wouldn't have otherwise, that they've never had before. And a chance to expose themselves, and if they do have talent, that's what we're looking for."
What advice would Flores give the finalists?
"This is a big opportunity to get a contract," he says. "A lot of kids would want this opportunity, so make sure you take advantage. Just work hard and play your best."