Not Just for Kicks

As a minority recruiter for the U.S. national soccer team, Juan Carlos Michia doesn't just love soccer, he lives it

Because he is watching a soccer game, Juan Carlos Michia is happy. No matter that the Florida sun has turned the playing field into brittle brown straw. No matter that the teams are composed of awkward, leggy boys. Michia is happy. As the players race the dusty pitch, Michia stakes out a shadeless area near a corner flag, away from the coaches and parents. Shielding his eyes with a hand, he scans the field in South Miami-Dade. "There's a nice ball," he says. "That could be a goal."

Michia himself is soccer pretty: a lean body, a thick mane of black hair, and skin bronzed from a life lived outdoors. He is wearing shorts and a Nike polo, as always. A few gray hairs peek out from under the collar of the shirt, but this is the only hint that he is in his early forties now, a married man, the father of two young children. Soccer, he'll tell you, has kept him young.

"Soccer," he says in a voice so quick and choppy it sounds exaggerated for comic effect, "been berry berry good to me." His talent on the field took him from a brewery town in Argentina to a professional career in the United States. But it's his obsessive love for the game that has landed him the most intriguing gig the U.S. Soccer Federation has to offer.

The federation sponsors the squads that play in the Olympics and the World Cup. The women's national team is the best in the world. The men's team finished the 1998 World Cup dead last. Michia's job is to help the men's team get better by recruiting talented fourteen-year-olds -- specifically, talented fourteen-year-olds who aren't suburban, middle class, and white.

Soccer, the world's most popular game, is played in the United States primarily in the suburbs. Good players in suburban leagues follow a clear path to state and regional all-star teams and, if exceptional, on to the national team. But soccer flourishes in American cities, too, in immigrant communities from Chile, Uganda, Croatia, and almost every other country in the world. The soccer in these ethnic enclaves is often better than the soccer in the suburbs. Yet many of these immigrants play in ad hoc leagues unaffiliated with the federation. Because they are never seen, some of the best young players in the United States are never discovered, and will never play for a national team that desperately needs them.

Michia's mission -- to bring these players into the system -- is considered essential if the U.S. team is ever going to be competitive internationally. He tirelessly networks with hundreds of coaches across the nation, and with the administrators of leagues in soccer meccas such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami. He spends just as much time traveling to the soccer Siberias of Kansas, New Mexico, and elsewhere. Mostly what he does is watch lots of teenage boys play soccer.

Today's match is typical. Both teams play recklessly, players swinging and missing kicks, misstriking passes, failing to open up for a teammate looking to advance the ball. Most of the boys follow the ball wherever it leads. Michia jots observations on Post-it notes he pulls from a leather folder. "The first fifteen minutes you don't ever see a game, just running," he explains. "After fifteen minutes boys start slowing down, showing more of their skill."

The visiting team is a good representation of soccer in America. The Nomads drifted down from North Palm Beach, along with a number of well-heeled parents who are videotaping the action from the sidelines. The home team, from Miami, is a mixture of nationalities: Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina. Michia has lived in Miami for the past five years, and he knows the background of each player on the local team. Dennis Ortiz, a tall midfielder with short black hair, used to be a little overweight, Michia notes. In the past two years he's slimmed down and elevated his game. "The nicest thing about Dennis is he has a very sweet left foot," Michia says.

His eye also follows the tiniest boy on the field, Osmany Hernandez, a Cuban. "I like him because he gives size and weight but he never quits," Michia says. "Also he is very skillful with the ball. He's a smart kid; you can see it. Even if he doesn't produce a lot, he's always trying to find the right spot to get open." A ball lifted across the field sails in Hernandez's direction. He is more than a foot smaller than the goalie, but he still tries to get his tiny, shaved head on the ball. The goalie punches the ball away. "Sometimes it's difficult," Michia shrugs.

Michia has been scouting Hernandez in a low-key way since the boy was eleven. Even then Michia noted the passion Hernandez has for the game, the way he's dying to play. Hernandez darts across the field, pushing aside a larger boy to get his cleats on the ball. "Look, look, look, look, look!" shouts Michia as a cloud of dust rises from the pitch. "I like him! Totally fearless. He has something!"

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