This isn't exactly what Arturo Alvarez pictured back when he was a speedy phenom dominating the soccer fields as a kid in Houston. But then again, realizing your lifelong dream never goes exactly to plan.
At the age of 24 the former U.S. youth-teamer is getting exactly what he envisioned. He'll step onto the field on Saturday in an American stadium, finally representing his country at the highest level. The stakes couldn't be higher: On the line is a place at the 2010 World Cup, the greatest achievement for any aspiring young soccer player.
He'll be sharing the field with players such as Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber, guys with whom he has gone to war on multiple occasions, such as qualifying for the 2005 Under-20 World Cup and the '08 Beijing Olympics.
After all the heartache of getting cut three times, struggling to find a true home for himself in Major League Soccer and failing to catch the attention of national team coach Bob Bradley, Alvarez has finally made it.
There's just one, small twist: He won't be wearing a U.S. jersey. He'll be playing for El Salvador, the birth country of his parents. And his old teammates will be trying to stop him.
To the U.S. Soccer Federation's knowledge, no former player who has suited up for the U.S. in an official game -- at the youth or senior level -- has gone on to face the U.S. Alvarez will make history at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.
"It will definitely be weird," he says. "But everything happens for a reason. I truly believe this is the way things were meant to turn out."
The strangest thing is that Alvarez's skills have long been touted as the type that the U.S. could use. And yet when it came down to it, he was overlooked time and again by U.S. coaches. There are reasons, of course -- some of his own doing, some just circumstantial. But Alvarez has spent his entire life trying to carve out his niche on the soccer field, coming up short at almost every turn.
With El Salvador, he has finally found it. Call it the American dream in reverse: More than 30 years ago, his parents came to the U.S. seeking better opportunities. Their son found his by going back to their country of birth.
Looking back, Alvarez has a laugh when he realizes that his very first soccer dream actually was to play for El Salvador. That's thanks to his dad, who instilled in him the passion for the Beautiful Game. Now 59, José Alvarez emigrated to the U.S. in 1971 from the port city of La Unión, El Salvador, and joined Houston's burgeoning Salvadoran population (more than 206,000 today, according to recent census data, giving Houston the fifth-largest Salvadoran-American community in the country). Like most of them, he lived and died with his birth country's national pastime.
"My dad's been a fan his whole life," Alvarez says. "When the Salvadoran national team played, you couldn't get them on TV. He would take me to a bar or a billiard hall so we could watch them on pay-per-view."
Alvarez remembers being dazzled by the likes of Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raúl Díaz Arce and Ronald Cerritos, legendary Salvadoran players who wore the colors of los Cuscatlecos and went on to have successful club careers in the U.S. in Major League Soccer. He remembers his father regaling him with stories of Jorge "El Mágico" González, El Salvador's most famous footballer and the first to make it big in Europe during nine legendary seasons in Spain.
"I never saw him in his prime," says Alvarez of El Salvador's all-time leading scorer. "But he was a god. The things he did were insane. Watching all those guys when I was little, it actually made me want to play for El Salvador."
Alvarez had an upbringing typical of children of immigrants in this country. Even though his parents held fast to Salvadoran traditions, customs and cuisine, he was a normal American kid in Bear Creek, Texas, a leafy suburb with a prominent Latino populace about 20 miles west of downtown Houston. But there was one trait that he took from his background: god-given soccer skills. By age 8 he was dribbling around and blazing past kids three years older than him.
To the surprise of no one that saw him play, the next few years were a whirlwind that thrust Alvarez up the American soccer ladder. He was snapped up by Texas Premier Futbol Club, a Houston-based youth soccer club that serves as a direct feeder to the national team system. While playing for the team in a tournament in Tampa as a teenager, he was discovered by a U.S. scout and was quickly invited to join the Under-17 national team.
He soon became a regular goal scorer for the U-17s and the U-18s, often surrounded by players two to three years older than he was. A year later he elected to sign with MLS by joining the league's Project 40 program, a system which, sponsored by Nike at the time, funneled the most promising high school talent directly into MLS. Alvarez was picked 12th in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes and signed his first professional contract at 17. By that June he had found his way into the Quakes rotation and scored his first goal and logged his first assist, all before his 18th birthday.
But the scouting report on him began to circulate: gifted, innate attacking skills and a nose for the goal, but lacking the complete game to succeed long-term. "As a young player, he definitely stood out," recalls U.S. Under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who coached Alvarez on that team in '03. "He had some qualities you don't often find. He was left-footed and had excellent technical skills. But I felt he needed a lot of work in all facets of the game."
Alvarez had the skills: His ability to take on defenders one-on-one was unparalleled, and he could finish like a professional and did so from the left side of the field, a specialty that's often rare. But the knocks on him -- that he lacked the defensive skills often needed at the winger position, didn't know how to handle criticism and often dominated in one game, only to disappear the next -- began to pile up.
Coaches who valued creativity and individual flourish in their systems had more patience for Alvarez: Rongen was dazzled by his talent early on and San Jose coach Frank Yallop has always championed Alvarez's natural skills. But those who favored more rigid tactical systems, coaches who asked their players to run specific tasks yet still build a comprehensive game, often had less tolerance for him.
Alvarez's first major disappointment came late in '03, when a groin injury shortened his MLS season and caused him to miss that year's Under-20 World Championships (14-year-old Freddy Adu replaced him on the team that went to the United Arab Emirates). His playing time with San Jose began to dwindle as well.
"At that point, he really hadn't figured out how to be effective," remembers U.S. star Landon Donovan, who was Alvarez's teammate for two seasons with the Quakes. Donovan says he could see early on that the young Texan had the talent, but didn't know how to be consistent or put it all together.
That continued in the coming years. Before the '05 season Alvarez was traded to FC Dallas, where he went on to experience a similarly up-and-down 4½ seasons under head coaches Colin Clarke and Steve Morrow. In the meantime he was making headway in his second go-around with the U-20s, this time under tactical wizard Sigi Schmid.
"He had the skills to play at the highest level," recalls Schmid, who now coaches MLS' Seattle Sounders. "But we were never sure which guy would be out there. He hid from the game at times."
Schmid compares Alvarez to Arjen Robben, the uber-talented Dutch national-team winger who can dazzle with jaw-dropping skills, but then goes silent for games at a time. It's those kinds of inconsistencies that have seen Robben ferried across Europe's biggest clubs -- from Chelsea to Real Madrid to Bayern Munich -- over the past few years.
Alvarez made it all the way until the final cuts leading into the U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands and got mostly good feedback from his teammates and coaches. But in the end he didn't make the team, getting cut after the final practice along with close friend and now U.S. regular Davies.
"The night before, we were talking and both thought we were sure to make it," remembers Davies. "When [Schmid] told us were cut, it was like being punched. We talked to each other a lot after that -- we would both try to keep each others' heads up and stay positive. I told him, you're too talented for that to be it and we're both still young. Let's use this for motivation."
Both players rebounded, and got their chance again a year later as the '08 Olympics began to come into focus. Then Under-23 coach Peter Nowak began to assemble the best and brightest of America's youngsters, including Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Feilhaber and Adu, preparing them for the eventual team that would go to the Beijing Summer Games.
"I didn't let [the '05 cut] get me down," Alvarez says. "I'm the kind of player and person who wants to get better. At the same time, I know the kind of player I am. I'm not going to change the style that got me here."
Alvarez's time with the U-23s came to a predictable finish. Once again he was one of the final cuts before the final Olympic squad was announced. The highly structured Nowak had no place in his squad for a "luxury player," as some were labeling Alvarez: a maverick offensive threat who preferred to rely on his own skills on the ball and who performed inconsistently. In the end, Stuart Holden held down the left wing position that Alvarez played.
"I was actually surprised that he didn't [make] the Olympic team," says Donovan. "I thought he was someone who could play there. Given the way he was going, there was probably a chance he'd be called into the U.S. [senior] team."
After sitting home for yet another youth tournament, it began to occur to Alvarez that, despite the gifts everyone had always told him he had, his chances to break into the national team setup were beginning to shrink. He had just turned 23 and there were no more youth tournaments for him to look forward to. And if Nowak had a strict system, Bob Bradley's with the senior team was even more so. Both positions in which Alvarez could have played had firmly entrenched starters: Donovan in a wide left position up top, Michael Bradley in central midfield.
"I thought I had been doing everything right," Alvarez recalls. "I scored a few goals here and there, I was a player who was good with the ball. A lot of coaches were fans, and they liked the way I played and told me I had the skills to go to the highest level. But there was something at the end of the day they all didn't like. I know the criticisms about me. I never stopped working."
After the disappointment of failing to make another team, Alvarez was simply trying to resurrect his career as the U.S. soldiered on in Beijing. He had been traded at midseason back to San Jose, where he was reunited with Yallop. Thanks to that deal, and a handful of other acquisitions, the new expansion Earthquakes were in the thick of a turnaround that saw them explode for 11 goals in five games. Alvarez was right in the middle of it, contributing three goals and three assists in just 12 games with the team by the time the year was over.
But Alvarez was still smarting from missing out on another big break with the national team. He knew the odds of getting a call of any kind from Bradley were getting smaller each day. Then another call came. It was from a member of El Salvador coach Carlos de los Cobos' staff.
"They had found out that both my parents were Salvadoran and they wanted me to consider maybe changing my eligibility," Alvarez says. It was an intriguing idea. If he wasn't getting anywhere with the U.S. national team, maybe he could re-declare for his parents' birth country to continue his international career. After all, he had yet to appear in a senior national team game and therefore would still be eligible for such a switch.
There was just one problem: He was too old. Under the existing FIFA rules, a player who wanted to make such a switch had to do so before his 21st birthday. Alvarez's former teammate with the U-20s, Florida-raised Neven Subotic, had done just that only weeks earlier, declaring senior eligibility for his birth nation of Serbia.
But de los Cobos wanted Alvarez, and the Salvadoran press had already picked up on this gifted norteño who might be able to boost the goal-hungry team's World Cup qualifying campaign. The Salvadoran federation held Alvarez's hand in compiling the proper paperwork for an appeal, and he began talking the possibility over with his family -- mainly his proud father -- while waiting for the word. "Worse than waiting at the DMV," he remembers.
His appeal was shot down twice. All he could do was concentrate on his play with the Earthquakes, and after that, whatever would happen, would happen. Then all of a sudden, something funny transpired: Alvarez began to grow up and develop into the all-around player that everyone was hoping he could be.
"Toward the end of last year, you could see that he had matured," says Yallop. "We were able to get a lot out of him defensively that I don't think he's shown before. He's learning that there are other things to do in a game that are as important as going one-on-one and blowing past a guy."
But the switch to El Salvador was still in his mind. He was visited by de los Cobos that offseason while back home in Houston. The Mexican-born coach talked about keeping his players motivated, yet freeing them up to express themselves in a system that rewarded creativity. De los Cobos was eager for a left-sided player of Alvarez's talent, especially with los Cuscatlecos being closer than ever to their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Alvarez left the meeting impressed, and continued to ponder the possibility, hoping that there might be a way to make the switch happen.
This past June, it did. FIFA relaxed its rules, allowing players of any age to switch nationalities if they were able to establish citizenship -- but only if they had never appeared for their senior national team in an official game. Suddenly, Alvarez's avenue back to international play was free and clear.
The rumors began to fly of who could be eligible to transfer into the U.S. setup: German-born Jermaine Jones was the first name dropped, and New Mexico-born Edgar Castillo hinted that he would like to return to the U.S. pool after flaming out with the Mexican national team. Yet Alvarez was the first out of any of them who actually had irons in the fire. FIFA already had his paperwork on file, and he already had one foot out the door.
"The funny thing is, there were rumors I might get called for the Gold Cup team," he says. Bradley was in the process of assembling an MLS-heavy "B" team to send to CONCACAF's regional championship, and Alvarez's name was among those floated. "But honestly, my mind was already made up. El Salvador made a big push for me, and I liked the way they played."
And by early August, the word from FIFA came: Alvarez's request to switch nationality had been approved.
Alvarez wasn't happy. He finally got his first cap for a senior team, and his first appearance in an official international game in almost two years. But for all the butterflies he felt before his El Salvador debut on Aug. 12 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and for as well as he played as a second-half substitute, he couldn't stop shaking his head.
"Man, we had them," he says of the 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. "In that second half, we dominated. We had the ball the whole time and we knew it was just a matter of time until we scored. Their goalie was everywhere."
But Alvarez's first experience as an El Salvador international was a huge success. His new coach, his new teammates, even the fans in attendance complimented him on how well he played and how glad they were he came aboard. "He's a great player who gives us different options up front," de los Cobos told FIFA.com, "and we're delighted to have him in the team."
Alvarez felt the love immediately. "This was a group of guys who had been working together for two years now with a coach they trusted," he says of the experience. "But they're already treating me like I belong. I read and hear that they're happy to have me and need my help. I want to be that guy."
He may feel at home, but his next step is an actual homecoming. On Saturday he'll have to deal with the emotions of playing on American soil for his new team against his old one. "It's going to be surreal," he admits. "I'll have some mixed emotions. The U.S. gave me my start, and I grew up with a lot of those guys in the youth system. But as soon as I step out on that field, it's a different story."
The week will only get crazier. After the U.S. game, Alvarez will return with his teammates to San Salvador for a Sept. 9 showdown with first-place Costa Rica. Strangely enough, that will mark only his second time in El Salvador (he went once when he was 6). In that key contest against los Ticos, Alvarez will experience what it's like to play at famed Estadio Cuscatlán, the 46,000-seat inferno where, as a boy, he watched his heroes on TV. It's also the same stadium in which the fevered masses nearly spurred El Salvador to a monstrous upset of the U.S. this past March.
"All my new teammates are telling me how crazy it is," he says. "They tell me I'll never forget it. When you see that on TV, it makes you understand why the game is religion down there. I can't imagine what it will be like in person."
Highlight moments aside, Alvarez looks at his new adventure as a long-term project. Barring a miracle, fifth-place El Salvador likely won't be one of the three CONCACAF teams that get an automatic ticket to next summer's World Cup. But Alvarez says he's part of a rejuvenation of El Salvador's national team program, and the squad will be stronger in the next World Cup cycle.
"I'll only be 28 [in 2014] and I still plan on being the same player," he says. "This team has a big future. Their youth teamers are playing in Argentina and Spain, and our coach has this team heading in the right direction. I'm here for the long haul."
He also says his switch may give him more visibility for a move to a bigger club, perhaps in Europe or elsewhere. "There's been interest in Mexico already," he says. "I'd love to play there. I love what I've got here in MLS, but I want to go abroad. Hopefully that can happen, and playing for El Salvador can help me get there. I'm looking forward to bigger and better things."
But first he's got to get through Saturday, and his second cap as a Salvadoran national teamer. When Alvarez looks around Rio Tinto Stadium, where he has played plenty of times against MLS' Real Salt Lake, he'll have another realization: He has finally gotten his breakthrough. "All through my career," he says, "I felt like, 'When am I going to get my break?' Well, this is it. This is my time to shine."