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

As the game slows down, the superior skills of the Miami players begin to emerge. In neat, deliberate strings, the ball travels from one white uniform to another, often leading to a shot on goal. The Nomads, clad in red and blue, try only for the home run, kicking long balls toward the Miami net in the slim hope one of their forwards will get to it before the goalie snaps it up. "Every ball they play hard," Michia says of the Nomads. "That's what the American kid knows. That's something good, too."

Just before the game ends, two coaches from the Miami team jog over to Michia to pay their respects. The head coach of Miami Sunset Senior High joins the scrum to thank Michia for placing two of his boys on a state all-star team. "It's going to be a good experience for them; they're gonna love it," says the coach, Jay Flipse. Almost everyone in Miami's soccer community knows Michia. He's a nice guy, always smiling, outgoing, and friendly. He also holds the power to change a kid's life, to pluck him from the obscurity of a neighborhood team and place him in the national development system. He deals with his share of suckups.

So he tries to work quietly. When the game ends, he turns to leave without talking to any of the kids. He has decided to submit the names of both Hernandez and Ortiz to the federation. Their names also will be forwarded to state and regional officials so the kids can be invited to play in all-star camps and tryouts. They will be in the system. If they do well at the regional level, they have a chance to earn an invitation to the national camp, and maybe, someday, win a spot on the national team.

Headband-wearing Osmany Hernandez: "I like him! He has something!"
Michael Marko
Headband-wearing Osmany Hernandez: "I like him! He has something!"
It's all about who you know: Michia networks with Miami Sunset High soccer coach Jay Flipse
Michael Marko
It's all about who you know: Michia networks with Miami Sunset High soccer coach Jay Flipse

As the boys on both teams shake hands at midfield, Michia heads home to be with his wife, who is eight-plus-months pregnant. "I'd rather go watch another game right now in Hialeah," he says with an exaggerated frown. Isn't he ever bored watching boys play soccer? "No! Never!" he laughs. "A friend of mine told me that all Argentinians ever do is play soccer, watch soccer, talk about soccer, and eat meat. It's true. That's all I do. I love the game. Actually, I'm in love with the game. There's a difference."

On June 15, 1998, the U.S. soccer team took the field for its opening match in the most recent World Cup, the players stretching out their legs in front of 44,000 fans crowded into the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. Across the field stood the revered German squad. The Americans, although heavy underdogs, were surprisingly confident; coaches and players had argued for respect since arriving in France more than a week earlier. "We feel we can beat all three teams in the group," said veteran defender Alexa Lalas a few days before kickoff.

"We're exactly in the situation we want to be in," added midfielder Tab Ramos. "The entire world is going to be watching this game, and we have a chance to show just how far U.S. soccer has come."

Under an overcast sky, as millions of people watched on television, the referee blew his whistle, the ball spun forward, and the game began.

And that, pretty much, was the high point of the World Cup for the Americans. Germany dominated every facet of the game en route to a 2-0 shutout. American players trudged back into training camp, clearly demoralized. Some players began whining about playing time. Others criticized head coach Steve Sampson's decision to play younger, less experienced players in such a big game.

Game two became crucial. The United States needed to beat Iran, preferably by a two- or three-goal margin. But after promising to "leave everything out on the field," in the words of forward Frankie Hejduk, the Americans fell 2-1. The final game, a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia, meant so little that several players were back in the States seven hours after the match ended. Based on goal differential, the U.S. team finished last of all 32 in the tournament. Sampson promptly resigned.

The dismal showing in France made all the more ridiculous the federation's pronouncement, issued just prior to the tournament, that the United States intends to win the World Cup outright within the next twelve years. "Project 2010" is a $50 million development program to find and train the best young players in America. At its inception Project 2010 was described as the athletic equivalent of landing a man on the moon. In the past three years, it has matured into a working blueprint to improve the youth-development system. A residency camp has been established for players under age seventeen. Extremely talented young players now have the option of developing professionally instead of playing college soccer, considered a far lower grade of the game.

One of the main goals of Project 2010 is an increased minority presence on the national teams. "For years the only players participating in the system came from the suburbs," says Tim Carter, director of youth development for the federation. "Yet soccer has always been going on in these unaffiliated ethnic communities. What we're trying to do [with Project 2010] is embrace soccer wherever it's played, to reach into these communities to let the players know how they can be part of U.S. soccer. It's a long journey, but we're trying to take it step by step. Juan Carlos [Michia] has been a tremendous link between white suburbia and ethnic communities."

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