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

He can't be all over the country at once, looking at every player. He can't go into every neighborhood of every city in search of undiscovered talent. But he can try to get to know the people who live in these communities and see these players. Networking among more than 700 coaches and scouts is the most important aspect of his work. When he does make it to a town, his contacts have already lined up most of the kids he's going to see.

When he's evaluating talent, he looks for quickness, skill, and especially confidence -- the main difference between a good and an excellent player. He tries to catch prospects more than once, usually a few months apart, to allow for a bad day or problems at home. "When I see these kids, I see myself when I was thirteen," he says. "I see their faces, I see the look of them when they're trying to impress the coaches, and I see myself doing the same thing when I was their age.

"That's why I'll never fool these kids," he adds. "I will always tell them the truth, even if I hate it. I won't mislead them just because I don't want to hurt their feelings."

Photos by Michael Marko

He loves finding gifted players where he least expects to see them. A couple of months ago, at a regional camp in Arlington, Virginia, he was watching about 35 boys run through drills when a boy younger than everyone else showed up, late. "His name is Freddy Adu," Michia says, repeating the name reverently. "He's an eleven-year-old yet he plays like he's thirteen! He's incredible! We found out he was born in Ghana. His father got a green card through the lottery. He's been living in the country for two years." Michia stops to catch his breath. "He's unbelievable!"

After three years of scouting talent, it's still too early for Michia to claim any superstar recruits. Success so far can be measured in percentages. At the national team camp in San Diego three years ago, only five percent of the youth team players were black or Hispanic. Last year the percentage of minorities increased to 30 percent. "I don't know if there's ever going to be a tangible payoff," observes Tim Carter, the federation's youth coach. "I think the payoff is the process we're going through."

Michia recalls a recent scouting trip he took to Las Vegas. He'd set up a tryout where young players could come display their skills. Michia had done very little networking in Nevada, a state without much of a soccer infrastructure. In virtual cold calls such as this, he depends on local Spanish-language newspapers and radio for publicity. The message didn't get out very well, though, and only seventeen kids showed up. Michia's face drops just thinking about it. "I went all the way out there. I went to an event, but it got no support," he says. "But when I left the field, I was just thinking about the positive side. At least I started something here. I stayed upbeat because I knew this was going to help. At least we started something."

At 2:00 on Super Bowl Sunday, Michia lazes on the aluminum bleachers of Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, relaxing with a small collection of fellow scouts. This is how he spends his day off. His wife, Juliette, her belly swollen with the Boca Junior fan she will give birth to in exactly one week, rests on a lawn chair near the stadium's main gate, talking to her sister. Michia's three-year-old daughter clomps up the bleachers to bury her face in the small of her father's back.

"Are you my little monkey, Alexa?" Michia asks. "Are you my little monkey?"

Michia is scoping the talent at the Copa Latina, the tournament he used to help organize. The players on the field are older than his usual age group, so he's not working for the federation. (A friend who runs a professional team in Connecticut needs some bodies, Michia relays.) Today's matchup features local club teams representing Haiti and Brazil; both wear replicas of their respective national uniforms. A band of Brazilian fans dance and pound drums in the opposite bleachers, as if rooting on their actual national team.

"The only thing this Brazilian team has is their uniforms," Michia says after a half of unspectacular football. "They are just average players."

A warm afternoon sun deepens the tan on Michia's face, arms, and legs. He drinks deeply from a bottle of water. Tom Mulroy, his old boss and the founder of Copa Latina, stops by to say hello. They talk for a bit about the state of soccer in Miami. Finding teams for the tournament isn't difficult, Mulroy explains. More than 90 applied for only 32 spots. "There are over 25 independent unaffiliated leagues just in Miami alone," Mulroy says. "Some guy from Colombia or somewhere will carve out a field out by Krome, say, and divide a bunch of Colombians into teams, and just play. It will be a full-time job for him; his wife might be selling sandwiches and beer out of their trunk. Some players spend their lives in these leagues and nobody ever hears about them."

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