IT'S A COLD reality of U.S. soccer: Despite the millions of soccer-playing Latinos in this country, the youth and senior national teams have had few Hispanic players. Over the years there has been a litany of explanations. The coaches in the U.S. Soccer Federation are too Eurocentric.... They focus too much on college soccer.... Hispanic prospects sometimes have complex immigration issues.
But Don Sheppard, president and founder of the Los Angeles Futbol Club (LAFC), based in La Ca√±ada Flintridge, Calif., thinks the real reason is simple: Joining the youth-club soccer system, where U.S. Soccer looks for talent, is too expensive for many Latinos. In 2006 Sheppard, a former consulting-company owner, started LAFC so that young players, many of them of Mexican and Central American extraction, would not be denied the right to play because they couldn't pay the $2,000 in annual expenses.
Backed by more than $2 million from Sheppard and a growing roster of sponsors from Adidas to England's Chelsea Football Club, LAFC now has more than 50 boys' and girls' teams with 800 players from ages eight to 18, and it's staking a claim as the top club in the nation. In July it stunned U.S. Soccer officials by becoming one of only two clubs whose under-16 and under-18 teams each qualified for the final eight-team tournament of the new U.S. Soccer Development Academy, an elite league that comprises 74 of the U.S.'s best clubs competing in showcases around the country. "It was clear that this was a team that approached the game differently," says Dave Sarachan, who coached the U.S. under-18 team until recently joining MLS's L.A. Galaxy as an associate head coach. "They were highly technical and allowed to play, but within a structure. They were disciplined and entertaining."
One key, the 61-year-old Sheppard says, is that LAFC prevents the parents of players from meddling on the field or in the boardroom and leaves the coaching to former pros such as Teddy Chronopolous and Dan Calichman. As a result, LAFC "plays soccer like I like to see it played," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. Sheppard has big plans for the club that include full-time residency for out-of-town prospects and tutoring to help players qualify for Division I scholarships.
Thanks to the exposure it received from the Development Academy, LAFC has placed five players on U.S. teams and Olympic Development Program rosters in 2008. Midfielders Kevin Mejia and Richard Menjivar, whose parents are from El Salvador, were called up to the U.S. under-18 team for a two-week tour of South America, forward Carlos Alvarez was called up by the under-20 team, and forward Ever De La Torre will soon join the under-14 squad.
U.S. Soccer is not the only outfit taking notice. Thanks to his performance at the Disney Soccer Showcase last December, LAFC forward Tony Benitez, 16, was one of 18 U.S. prospects invited to train for two weeks with Chelsea's youth team.
WEST COAST OFFENSE LAFC midfielder Jonathan Gamez, 18, presses the attack.