Not Just for Kicks
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.
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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!"
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.
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."
Michia's face lights up at the thought of harnessing all the talent already out there. "What other country in the world has our resources?" he asks. "We've got players from every country on Earth already living here. Some know how to play the Brazilian style, some play the European way. We already have the American style from the suburbs. If we get these people together, we will be unstoppable."
Michia works out of an office in his three-bedroom condo in West Kendall, just off the Florida Turnpike. He likes to spend his mornings drinking Argentine tea while filling out paperwork or returning phone calls. In the afternoons he'll grab a cup of café cubano from La Carreta before picking up his daughter from school. At night he'll probably catch a high school or local club game. If there's no game to see in person, he'll usually pull down a match off the satellite dish. Brazil's first division, Argentina's first division, Peru, Italy, the Premier League in England, it doesn't matter.
"Compared to five years ago, now we can watch a lot of soccer on TV," he crows. "Definitely when the best team in the world is on, Boca Junior from Argentina, I don't need anybody around me. I just want to watch the game. That is when my fanatic passions come out. When my son was born, I make 25 to 30 phone calls to my friends. 'By the way,' I tell them, 'there's another Boca Junior fan in the world.' I love to watch them play. That for me is Heaven."
Michia grew up in Quilmes, Argentina, in a house twenty blocks from the brewery that promotes the town's name. At age twenty he won a spot on the Quilmes club team in the second division of Argentina's professional league. He was a good player, though no superstar. "I was always very realistic," he says of his talent level. "I remember my brain wants to do something, but my feet didn't want to do it that much. So that's when I start to play smart. I knew my strength: that I have a good vision of the game and have good skill. My problem is my right foot is only for walking around. I can't even use it. I didn't have a very powerful shot."
From an early age Michia knew he didn't have what it takes to play for the vaunted Argentine national team. Simply staying on with Quilmes would have been a struggle. When a recruiter from the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) offered Michia a position on the Houston Hurricanes, he bit. "I came solo," he recalls. "I mean, I didn't even know how to speak English. I didn't even know about the U.S. I was so much into soccer and into my future life, and I was waiting for a chance just to play. I think most people who come over here want to live over here. Because you have a good life. If you work hard, you have a good life."
He arrived in 1979, during soccer's first big American boom. Playing in the NASL he battled stars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. After the Hurricanes folded in 1980, Michia hooked up with the indoor leagues that flourished at the time. Among his clubs were the New York Arrows, the Chicago Horizons, and the Baltimore Blast, with whom he won a championship. In time his skills declined. He moved back to defense from his position quarterbacking the offense in the midfield. "If I didn't quit when I was 33, I was going to end up playing goalkeeper," he jokes. "I got too old to run. I said, 'I have to quit for the good of the game.'"
Michia decided to stay in the United States when his career ended. It's hard to leave when you've lived in one place for fourteen years, he explains. Five years ago, when visiting a friend in New Jersey, he met his wife, a pretty blonde who hails from Sarasota. They soon married, then moved to Miami. Michia coached club, high school teams, and a semi-pro team. He also worked on the Copa Latina, an annual grassroots tournament featuring dozens of different Miami club teams, each representing different homelands. It was this job that put him on the U.S. Soccer Federation's radar.
"It's funny to me how I got the job," he recalls. "I never interviewed with any of the state or regional soccer organizations, yet four years ago at the national coach's convention in Philadelphia, I met a guy from the federation, and we started talking about the Copa Latina. He asked me to send him a résumé, so I did. Very quickly I'm being interviewed by Steve Sampson and I got the job."
The work keeps him occupied with soccer seven days a week, and on the road much of the time. His appointment book is resplendent in fluorescent yellow ink. Each highlighted date indicates a road trip. "Three weeks ago I was in Chicago and Milwaukee attending tryouts," he says, flipping through the book. "I saw some good players. Two weeks ago I was in Baltimore at the national coaches' convention. I got so many business cards you would not believe! Then last week I was in New York, where I saw players from Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Poland, Colombia, and from the U.S. I also met with coaches and set up a tryout on Randall's Island for April. I stayed at my friend's house because the money I saved will let me go see other kids in El Paso, Texas, in the next two or three months. If I'd rented a hotel room, I wouldn't be able to make the extra trip."
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."
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."
Nick Megaloudis, an assistant coach with the Miami Fusion franchise, nods. He knows all about scouting for talent in Miami's soccer-crazed ethnic subcultures. Yesterday, during the opening session of the tournament, Megaloudis found a goalkeeper. The kid was only nineteen years old. "He was real raw, but he had all the tools," Megaloudis recalls. "So I went up to him and I asked him if he was an American. He says no, he's a Mexican. I asked him where he was born. He says Texas."
Michia smiles in recognition. He runs into this problem all the time: players not thinking of themselves as Americans, even though they've lived their entire lives in the United States. "He comes from Homestead," Megaloudis continues. "It's a city that's kind of unknown, even in Dade County, you know; it's all the way down there. And the kid is content just playing soccer. He doesn't know he has potential, that this could be a career."
Someone notes that the U.S. men's team defeated Chile the night before, in Chile. It was the first victory in five years for a U.S. team playing in South America. In January the United States came from behind to tie Iran, one of the teams that beat them in the World Cup. New head coach Bruce Arena's record with the national team is 8-4-4, with wins over Germany and Argentina. The team is again ranked among the top 25 in the world. More important to Michia, the under-seventeen national team finished fourth out of sixteen teams competing in last year's World Youth Cup in New Zealand. An under-fifteen national team recently completed a successful tour of Mexican club teams.
Two youth teams take the field for a halftime scrimmage. Tiny boys with shorts hanging down to their ankles crisscross the field wildly. Tom Mulroy heads off to talk to a referee. Megaloudis moves away to chat with a friend. Alone in the bleachers, Michia leans forward. Instinctively his eyes scan the field. "I'm so happy to have this position," he says suddenly. "I feel so strong about it. I feel it is so important. Not only for Spanish kids but for everyone. For China, Japan, Africa, the Caribbean. I always said this country is for everyone. It should be for everyone in soccer, too."
On the field a tiny Haitian boy delivers a pass right to the feet of a teammate. "There! Look!" shouts Michia, almost leaping out of his seat. "That's the best thing I've seen all day!"
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