Jonah Freedman
Tuesday August 11th, 2009

He's listed by the U.S. Soccer Federation as 5-foot-7 (that's generous), 135 pounds (probably accurate). With that wispy frame, soft-spoken José Francisco Torres doesn't look like a guy who might symbolize the future of the U.S. national team. But that has nothing to do with why the U.S. isn't ready for the future.

At Wednesday's pulsating World Cup qualifier here, the boos from the near-115,000 crowd at Estadio Azteca will be a little louder for Torres if U.S. coach Bob Bradley subs him in. For one, the 21-year-old Longview, Texas, native is well-known to Mexican fans. He's the only player on the national team to play his club ball in Mexico. Plucked by powerhouse Pachuca when he was in high school, Torres cracked the squad's starting lineup last year and has seen action twice at Azteca against its home team, Club América.

More important, Torres is the one who turned his back on the Mexican national team. Because his father is a Mexican immigrant, he was eligible to declare for El Tri and came very close to doing so a year ago. But after realizing he'd have a better chance of cracking the U.S. rotation, he went with his birth nation.

"It was a hard decision," Torres admitted. "I made my career in Mexico. I had been there for six years."

Getting Torres' commitment was a victory for the U.S. in yet another tug-of-war with its archrival. The young midfielder is extremely talented, with technical skills you don't often find in the U.S. player pool. He's an attacking midfielder who can keep the ball close to his feet and make stunning plays by breaking down defenders or artfully sidestepping them to deliver a perfect pass to an onrushing attacker.

"He gives the U.S. a different look when he comes on the field," one source close to U.S. Soccer said. "He looks for the ball in most positions, he wants it at his feet. He can start an attack from a deeper position with shorter passing and combo plays. To be honest, I'm not sure [Bradley] knows how to use him."

And that's the problem. He might be too good, at least for what the U.S. does. Torres hasn't seen action for the Americans since the 3-1 debacle in Costa Rica in June, and didn't take the field in South Africa despite being named to the Confederations Cup roster. Some of that is due to his inexperience. Probably more of it is due to the fact that there's no natural place for him.

"He has undeniable talent and skill," said former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN analyst. "But his game is geared toward a specific style, which is, at least for now, not conducive to what the national team is doing."

The U.S. has found success with a classic formula: the 4-4-2 formation. The way the U.S. runs it, that means four defenders on the back line, two central midfielders deployed as box-to-box playmaker/enforcers, two wingers and two forwards. That stresses physicality in defense and midfield, and the ability to absorb pressure and wait for the counterattack, concentrating on moving the ball upfield on the flanks with speed. When it works properly, the U.S. can outmuscle a lot of teams and then produce a goal off a cross from the wings or a blistering shot from long range.

Or, ideally, a goal can come against the run of play on the counterattack, such as the Americans' dazzling second goal against Brazil in the Confed Cup final: an intercepted pass deep in U.S. territory by midfielder Ricardo Clark, which led to a give-and-go fast break between Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies, with the finish by Donovan.

In many ways, it's a style that reflects the approach of Northern European teams like Sweden, Denmark or even Germany. But it's also a reflection of the players the U.S. has at its disposal. For all the on-the-ball talent of dynamic standouts like Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, not one has the sort of possession skills that make teams like Argentina, Spain and Brazil so fun to watch.

Torres is an unfinished product and is still very raw. But he has those skills, thanks to his schooling in the Mexican game. That's not to say Torres is going to turn the U.S. into Argentina -- far from it. But he does represent the first wave of homegrown players to come into the national-team pool whose Latin approach to the game better reflects the changing demographics of the country.

For years, the U.S. Soccer Federation has been desperate to improve its scouting efforts to find players like Torres: kids who grew up surrounded by the Latin game who, because of economic constraints, don't find their way into the U.S. pool through the traditional channels of the youth-club system. Torres is the first of his kind to make it all the way up to the senior national-team level.

More are on their way, though when is another question. The USSF has revamped its scouting efforts in predominantly Hispanic and other immigrant communities and made major investments in its youth-club system (committing to programs like the hugely successful LAFC in suburban Los Angeles), all to improve the types of players the U.S. has at its disposal.

"I'm quite convinced that we have Hispanic players out there who can be as good as Torres and others, and it's our job to find them," USSF president Sunil Gulati told SI.com in June. "And it's not only true of the Hispanic community."

There's a lot of excitement with the players now coming through the youth system, though sources say you'd probably have to dip down to the Under-17 level to find skill players of the Torres pedigree. Names to watch may include U-17 national-teamers Luis Gil and Zambia-born Charles Renken, both talented midfielders, and even Torres' younger brother, Guillermo, a holding midfielder with the Pachuca academy who has been called into U-23 camp. But that means that if we're waiting for a football revolution in this country, we may not see it until the 2018 or 2022 World Cup at the earliest.

In the present, Torres stands alone. Bradley, of course, is keenly aware of the youngster's talents and what he brings to the team. But finding a place for him in the U.S. scheme hasn't been easy. In a tough, vital game against a quality opponent, tinkering with a system that works is a mistake. That's one reason why Bradley's 4-3-3 experiment in Costa Rica got torched (and, it should be noted, Torres started that game, with mixed results).

Ironically, a 4-3-3, which stresses ball movement and individual skill, is the ideal place for a player of Torres' gifts. But the U.S. is not at a point as a footballing nation where it can do that. The dream is that eventually, the national team's style of play will be a reflection of the makeup of the country: the best grind-'em-out aspects of the European game mixed with the flair and quick passing of the Latin game. "America's Game," if it exists, has yet to be seen. And a style of soccer that is quintessentially American is an exciting prospect.

But the immediate goal is to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. And for now, that means there may not be a place for Torres, even if he does make the eventual roster (becoming only the third U.S.-born Latin-American player to receive that honor).

"He may be ahead of his time," Lalas said. "For the team Bob has, he's making them play the right way. That's not to say Torres can't adapt. But he's going to have to adapt to the team more than the team will to him, that's for sure."

It'll certainly be a special moment for Torres if he gets in the game on Wednesday. But the revolution, for now, will not be televised. It's just on hold.

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