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Kick Start New Mexico has become a youth-soccer hotbed, thanks in part to changes that have opened the game to more Hispanic immigrants

May 24, 2004
May 24, 2004

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May 24, 2004

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Kick Start New Mexico has become a youth-soccer hotbed, thanks in part to changes that have opened the game to more Hispanic immigrants

When Ofelia Lira immigrated from Torreon in northern Mexico to Las
Cruces, N.Mex., last July, she believed she was doing right for
her two sons, Ivan, 11, and Gaspar, 9. But as she watched Gaspar
play soccer on a windy desert night a few weeks ago, the outline
of the Organ Mountains off to the east, the single mom admitted
she might have made a mistake. ¶ "It has been hard to find work,
and I have been thinking about going home," she said in Spanish,
looking down at Ivan, who was seated at her feet. "But I cannot
leave because of the opportunity they have here to play soccer.
They love it, and I can't take it from them."

This is an article from the May 24, 2004 issue Original Layout

Immigrants like Lira have long brought soccer-loving children
across the Rio Grande (legally and illegally), part of the reason
New Mexico, and particularly the southern part of the state,
where Las Cruces is located, has become a hotbed of talented
youth-league players. One has only to look across the 23 packed
fields on the Santa Ana Pueblo in Bernalillo outside
Albuquerque--site of this month's State Cup--to appreciate the
sport's popularity throughout the Land of Enchantment. But more
discerning eyes, such as the pair belonging to the Liras' coach,
Linda Lara, look across the fields in Bernalillo and see the
results of a grassroots movement that only recently succeeded in
bringing change to the soccer culture here.

Even as New Mexico's Hispanic population grew to more than 42% as
of 2000, the highest proportion of any state, the top level of
youth soccer was inaccessible to many of the best Hispanic
players. The selection process for the state's Olympic
Development Program (ODP)--US Youth Soccer's tool for identifying
potential national-team players and a pipeline for college
recruiters--was dominated by coaches from big club teams in and
around Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. Participation fees
and the cost of traveling and staying in Albuquerque (the only
place practices were held) prevented many of those Hispanic
players who were picked from participating. "It was like ODP was
only for the rich," says Lara.

But reform in the New Mexico Youth Soccer Association (NMYSA),
and the dedication of people like Lara, has greatly altered the
state's soccer scene. A number of Hispanic players, many of them
poor immigrants, are now excelling in the ODP and helping their
teams win state high school and club titles. "The people on the
board of directors [of the Albuquerque-based NMYSA] fought tooth
and nail against some of the changes," says Bob Bigney, the
association's former director of coaching who's now a club coach
in Las Cruces. Adds Mark Paffett, the NMYSA president, "There are
some people who don't want to give up the power. Albuquerque had
always been the big dog and made all the rules."

The big dog in Las Cruces is Lara, though she hardly looks the
part. The 48-year-old elementary school counselor stands just
over five-feet tall and never played soccer. She started a team
called Strikers FC when the first of her four sons began playing
20 years ago. She now manages five teams at varying age levels--a
total of 78 boys and girls, a third of whom each year are recent
immigrants.

"Linda is like a fairy godmother," Paffett says. "She puts up
thousands of dollars a year to help these kids play, to keep them
in school. She is allowing them the opportunity to better their
lives."

Lara doesn't ask if a family can afford registration or
tournament fees or travel costs; she only requires that her
players make practice on time, stay in school and earn solid
grades. She rarely loses a player at a time when the high school
dropout rate for Hispanic immigrants in New Mexico is more than
40%. "Linda is the support system for a lot of the families,"
says Scott McClanahan, whose son, Ryan, plays for Lara's under-17
team.

At a recent practice Lara was more into bragging about her
players than talking about her generosity. She ticked off the
college prospects of each player. Patrick Jurney, 17, started
playing with the Strikers FC but moved to Albuquerque when he was
eight years old because his mother changed jobs. For the past
couple of years he has driven more than three hours to Las Cruces
for practice most weeks. "I tried playing for a club in
Albuquerque, but no one cared for each other," Jurney says.
"Playing for Linda and the Strikers is more meaningful."

The meaning isn't lost on Edgar and Noel Castillo, brothers who
have greatly benefited from Lara's generosity. "These two were
born here but made the transition to English after they joined
the Strikers," she says proudly. They have developed into two of
the state's best players. Edgar traveled to Chile last month with
the District IV all-star team and has been invited to Adidas's
Elite Soccer Program, a collection of the top 150 youth players
in the nation.

Change came to New Mexico soccer when Bigney arrived at the NMYSA
from Virginia in 1999. "You'd see some of Linda's kids and ask
why they were not in ODP," he recalls. Bigney did away with
tryout fees and made it possible for any coach--not just those
running the big clubs in Albuquerque--to recommend a player for
the program. He also took steps to draw attention to players
outside Albuquerque, holding ODP practices in Las Cruces, even
bringing a national-team coach to scout players there. Strikers
FC players were soon starring in the ODP.

"The first year I tried out for the state team [in 1998], there
were all guys from Albuquerque and two from Las Cruces," says
David Lara, 17, Linda's youngest son. "This year there were only
four from Albuquerque, and the rest were from the south."

Despite the success of Strikers FC, Paffett believes the biggest
indicator of the changing landscape of youth soccer in New Mexico
was the Class 5-A state high school title won by the girls' team
at Las Cruces High in 2003, the first by a school from the
southern half of the state. The team was made up largely of
players from the lone under-15 girls' club team in the Las Cruces
region, the Jornada Sharks. Like Lara's Strikers, the Sharks
reflect the diversity of Las Cruces, with nine Hispanics, five
U.S.-born whites, two Slavic immigrants and one Native American.
Like the Strikers, many of the Sharks are "scholarship" players,
meaning that the club's coach, Ivan Strnad, pays their fees or
enlists other parents to help cover costs.

Among Strnad's players last season was Taylor Lytle, who
qualified for the national pool in the girls' under-15 division.
She and Edgar Castillo might not have reached the national level
had it not been for Wayne Suggs, coaching administrator for Las
Cruces's High Noon Soccer League. He raised $6,000 to help pay
travel and registration fees for Las Cruces players in the ODP,
which the NMYSA matched, although not without dissent from some
board members and parents in Albuquerque, Paffett says. He
believes their protests were grounded in the fact that southern
kids are winning spots on state teams in place of their own
children. "It's been a battle," Suggs says.

John Madding, NMYSA director of coaching and education, says,
"There was some resistance--as there is any time you ask the
majority to make sacrifices so a minority can participate.
Albuquerque is where most youth soccer players are, but when they
saw how much better the state teams were with Linda's players,
they became more accepting."

Paffett is now trying to reach out to New Mexico's other
substantial minority group, Native Americans. An initiative
spearheaded by Madding and buoyed by casino money (there are 15
Native American-run casinos in the state), is building fields and
training coaches on the pueblos. "The goal is simple: Give more
kids the opportunity to play," Paffett says.

Ivan Lira, while watching his brother in action at the High Noon
Soccer Complex, overheard his mother say she couldn't take him
from the Strikers; he looked up at her, smiling, and nodded his
approval. He grabbed a ball from a U-16 Strikers player and
dribbled off, just a typical New Mexico kid playing the game he
loves.

For more about sports in New Mexico and the other 49 states, go
to si.com/50.

This is the 44th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: New York

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK UPWARDLY MOBILE Players on southern New Mexico clubs like the Strikers (in black) are filling more state all-star slots.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK TOE-TO-TOE Boys and girls learn the game together in a Las Cruces under-seven league.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK CARING COACH Lara, the fairy godmother of youth soccer in Las Cruces, manages 78 players on five teams.

"Linda puts up thousands of dollars a year to help these kids
play, to keep them in school. She is allowing them the
opportunity to better their lives."