Jasson Lira's father died three years ago. His mother, unable to raise him on her own, put him up for adoption, and he eventually found a home with a Guatemalan couple. A few weeks ago, Jasson, now 16 years old, played 45 minutes in front of numerous Liga MX scouts, his adopted family and an adoring audience for a chance to win a professional soccer contract. A chance he rightfully described as being one of a lifetime, and one that he took in dedication to his deceased father.
Jasson was one of 48 kids who earned such an opportunity that weekend. While each had their own personal story, they were all connected by a common thread: these children were of poor backgrounds and much better at kicking a ball than they reasonably should be at that age.
The group assembled in Miami on the weekend of October 2-4, having earned their places impressing in the Sueño Alianza, a series of free open tryouts held by Alianza de Futbol Hispano in various locations throughout the United States.
Adults, wee ones, women and food: Alianza de Futbol has it all covered
The Alianzo de Futbol Hispano is an organization devoted to supporting and developing Hispanic amateur soccer. It does so in a number of ways: from conducting amateur tournaments to hosting skill clinics to scouting for Hispanic youth players. The Sueño Alianza finals give the 48 chosen players the opportunity to perform in showcase matches in front of professional and college scouts.
What must be noted here is the Sueño Alianza program is essentially free. While it is not set up to directly compete with the current pay-to-play system of youth soccer in the United States, it makes for an engrossing antagonist for Hispanic youth. The initial open tryouts, which sees more than 5,000 entrants, is free to participate in. No outrageous combine fee. Those who are selected -- usually the top two in each position in each region, then whittled down to the top two in the overall region -- are provided everything they need, barring boots.
Alianza de Futbol Hispano has multiple programs and tournaments: the Copa Alianza, Copita Alianza and the aforementioned Sueño Alianza. The Copa Alianza, sponsored by Ram Truck, is an Hispanic adult amateur tournament that attracts over 5,000 players, divided into almost 300 teams. As well as glory, medals and the chance to compete against some of the best teams in the U.S., the winners also receive $100,000 in cash and prizes.
The Copita Alianza is a youth cup competition that features over more than 1,000 teams and 20,000 small-footed and wobbly children. This wee program is sponsored by Kellogg's, who make it fairly cheap, which is part of the reason why the number of participants is so grand.
Sueño Alianza, sponsored by 7UP, is essentially a scouting program for Hispanic teenagers. In the decade since its inception, 40 players have signed professional contracts with Liga MX clubs, with 14 earning national youth teams call ups --for Mexico, United States and Honduras. Eight other players have earned college scholarships, which is where the program aims to make its bread and butter; encouraging, helping and facilitating a college career for the participants, with the professional soccer player route still an option.
There's also the Alianza food festival -- the best part if we're all honest with ourselves -- and the interactive sponsor village. Finally, Alianza Femenil is in the works, which will look to attract around 2,000 Hispanic female soccer players. Combined, all of the attractions bring in around 200,000 players annually, with a small thanks to Jorge Campos and Rafael Marquez, who are friends and sponsors of the program.
Just how do insanely talented teens hoping for a professional contract train, anyway?
The training sessions took place Friday, after an intra-squad scrimmage Thursday. Telemundo officials, scouts and writers were scattered on the players' bench area, with anxious, adoring parents filling the other side, trying their best to keep cool under colorful, gigantic umbrellas.
The U16s were separated into two groups by an FMF coach, who can only be described as a loving drill sargeant. He nearly lost his voice as he shepherded the boys through a one-touch passing and shooting drill. Adoringly, he refused to let them dwell on mistakes and congratulated each one after every good series.
After the first drill, the players were divided further, into three mini-groups: one set of players were the midfielders, another set deeper to their right as the wingers, and last, the forwards who set up in front of the midfielders and parallel to the wingers. The midfielder sent a sharp pass to the forward, who laid the ball back to the midfielder as the winger made a run to the outside. The midfielder then sent a long pass to the streaking winger, who crossed to the forward as he made his run into the box.
The next drill combined combined the powers of the two groups. The same setup existed, with six different mini-groups in total: two midfielders, forwards and wingers group composed of two or three players. The difference now was the pass would come from the midfielder to the winger, who sent it off to the forward; the forward would then pass it to the second midfielder on the ground. This new addition to the team would trap the ball, wait for the winger to make a run, then send a 30-yard diagonal pass that was ordered to be controlled and crossed in two touches. Another twist was the initial midfielder also made a run into the box, with the forward responsible for getting the ball to the second midfielder.
The final drill, a rather simple one focusing on finishing, was the kids' favorite. The players lined up 40 yards out, with the coach 15 yards between them and the goalkeeper. They passed the ball to the coach who would then pick a side and the players were tasked to finish with their first touch. Later, the coach started to put the ball in the air for the players, who were then restricted to no more than two touches to finish.
The U19s went through the same process later in the day, executing drills after their warmups, which consisted of running one-touch combinations, high knees, running in place, small possession games and stretching.
After the training, the players joined up with their mentors. The mentor program, a new addition to the Sueño Alianza, is a way to ensure players receive both ample attention from the scouts and feedback on their performances. Each scout sat with three or four players, going through his notes on the training session and taking his time with the youngsters. It was nonetheless a lighthearted affair, with laughter and the occasional scout showing his own prowess on the ball to impress the snickering pupil.
Big dreams prompted inspired performances from the teenagers
U16s vs Plantation FC
The Sueño Alianza is designed to allow scouts to watch some of the most talented Hispanic youngsters in North America, so it really shouldn't be surprising the exhibition games were rather professional affairs, from the tactics used to the soccer on display.
For the U16s, the match began in frantic fashion, the midfield and wings a battlefield of flying tackles, shoulder barges and electric sprints. Lira suffered an ankle injury but he, like his teammates, was aware that he was fighting for his future. He remained on the field, where his tireless play and tough tackling meant he managed to keep his rival attackers quiet, while his stylish performances were evident in his own attacking play.
Despite the Alianza team never having played together, the combination of skill and intelligence -- and likely the shared hope for their futures -- meant they were the better side. The midfield duo of Jonathan Navarro and Emmanuel Perez, both short, stocky and bullish in their approach, quickly struck fear into their midfield counterparts. It was they that rallied after Plantation took a surprise lead, combining for three great chances before Navarro suffered a bad tackle and had to be substituted.
But there was quality elsewhere as well, both already on the pitch and coming on as a substitute. Miguel Angel de Leon immediately showed his ability with a combination of stepovers, pace and feints, leaving a defender on the ground, clawing and grabbing his jersey as he raced past. His teammate Santiago Ayala showed the same sort of passion, turning a defender inside out so viciously that it could only be described as being put in a blender.
It was de Leon that orchestrated the equalizer, bamboozling two defenders before crossing the ball into the area for forward Andrew Nino to flick in as he raced to the near post. The ball seemed to roll in slow motion, almost spitefully finding its way into the net.
The second half brought seven new players onto the field, shifting the look and balance of the squad. Nearly all the Alianza players made the sign of the cross and said a prayer, with some even hopping on one foot before sprinting back out. It was likely an automatic ritual, but undoubtedly some were praying more fervently than usual, hoping their display would positively impact their future.
Whereas previously the defenders had been athletic, no-nonsense dictators, now Alianza had Carlo Vargas, tall and not so quick, alongside Jordan Patrick, who looked, ran and dribbled like Real Madrid's Marcelo. The midfield was a collection of small players, including Donald Arredondo, who was only 14 years old. Arredondo and Juan Ortiz, both small and quick, may have lacked the grit and muscle of their predecessors, but they managed to conquer the middle of the pitch by baiting their opponents into silly fouls.
Up top, Victor Castillo and Jesus Mundo were able to wreak havoc on the defense, with shot after shot stinging the palms of the keeper. The opposing defense managed to hold firm, however, and the game finished even at 1-1.
U19s vs RedStar F.C.
The U19s took the pitch later in the day, using the same 4-4-2 as their younger counterparts. Left winger Giansebastian Goicochea made it known immediately he would be difficult to handle, beating two defenders with incredible ease only to hit the side netting.
On the other side, Felipe Gastaldi and Diego Cervantes combined defensive duties with pinpoint crosses, nearly setting up an early goal for forward Jorge Abraham Zamarron. At the back, Sergio Martinez and Adair Casas were a pairing seemingly conjured from José Mourinho's dreams, giving their opponents no room to breathe while delivering cheeky, tactical fouls that weren't exactly yellow card worthy but still required a talking to from the referee.
Much of the magic happened up front, however. The goal was created from the team pressing forward, but required an individual moment of brilliance from Zamarron. The forward received the ball with a defender right on his heels; once he'd turned the defender to his left, it appeared he'd lost the angle for the shot. But then Zamarron curled a magnificent left foot effort that nearly grazed the top of the crossbar before hitting the upper far post, landing inside the net and leaving the scouts in stunned silence.
While that remained the only goal, the Alianza squad dominated both sides of the half. The Red Stars keeper could only throw his hands up in frustration at his defenders as the opposition broke through again and again. In the second half, a few shots bounced off the woodwork and Red Star nearly put the ball in the back of their own net, unable to keep the buoyant forwards in check. It was the sort of performance you'd never expect from a team that had only played together once -- the day before.
"You're all a winner already"
Cleaned and refreshed after their games, the entire group parked themselves just outside of the reception hall, where the awards ceremony was to take place. They were a boisterous bunch, chatting, laughing and hugging each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to believe they'd just met. Whenever one of the directors, trainers or coaches walked past, the players would stop talking and chant the person's name in unison, growing louder when encouraged by the embarrassment and laughter of their victim. Some of the directors played into it, bowing and chanting along with the kids, eliciting a tremendous roar of appreciation.
The playful chanting betrayed the serious nature of what was to come. The players took their seats in the front of the reception hall, with the rest of the audience anxious and restless behind them. To the right, the scouts and national team officials murmured and laughed quietly; on the left were photo-booths to capture the emotions of the evening.
Brad Rothenberg, co-founder of Alianza de Futbol Hispano, began by congratulating the players on their achievements, stating, "While everyone may not get selected here, you are all winners already." He then went on to remind them of Alianza's goal to help them not only with their professional futures, but to encourage and push them to go on to a college education. The language shifted to Spanish as Telemundo officials, then Verizon representatives, talked up the importance of the Alianza program, and went on to congratulate the players, who responded with loud applause and cheers.
Then each player was called to the stage, where they were given a certificate of recognition and a round of applause. The audience could barely contain their adulation, causing the players to grin from ear to ear, and some even to turn red.
Next came two scholarship winners, Kendra Arriaga and Christian Ambrose-Castillo. The 18-year-olds were granted $10,000 each for writing about how soccer and technology could help them better their futures.
Then came the most-nerve-wracking -- and heartbreaking -- portion of the ceremony. Scouts from Pachuca, UNAM, Morelia, Zacatecas, Leon, Necaxa, Tigres, Tijuana, Atlas, Santos, Club America, Queretaro, Guadalajara and Xolos made their way to the stage, one by one. After each club was announced, and hearts had dropped into stomachs, they'd call the name of a player granted a trial.
The scouts did well to put the players at ease, smiling and joking during what could well have been the most life-changing moment of their young lives. After the players received their obligatory handshake -- some even went in for a hug -- they were given scarves from the teams.
Up front, the players tried their hardest to stay reserved, but the parents absolutely lost it. When seven young players were called up to receive their contract offers, a few family members could not help but to jump and scream in excitement. Small siblings were calling out the names of their brothers, mothers were weeping and fathers were pumping their fists, exclaiming "That's my boy! Woo!" The entire hall was full of thunderous celebrations after every name.
But where there's cheers, there's often tears. Many of the players kept their joy restrained due to the fate of their friends. Those who weren't selected were forced to watch while their friends were celebrated; one who couldn't hide his disappointment burst into tears and was taken to the side and comforted by his parents, the directors and his mentor. Another quietly walked into the hallway before breaking down on the floor. Many did not even have their parents on hand to console them, as they hadn't been able to afford the trip.
"He's hurting, my baby's hurting," one mother cried, while her husband reassured her that the experience would make the boy stronger in the future.
The pain of not being chosen, of having their dreams dashed, would linger for some time, but most would realize not all hope was gone. Sergio Martinez was one of the heartbroken the first time he competed in the Sueño Alianza. He returned again and received trial offers, but this time around, he'd received a contract offer from Leon.
Speaking to the players after, it was evident many of them had believed such opportunities beyond them. Minus the handful in academies, they played at local clubs. Many had never considered college an option. The incredible talent on display in both training and during the games would likely have gone to waste without such a program.
When the ceremony ended, it didn't take long for the players to come into one big group once more, joking and running around with plates of food. The party atmosphere continued until around 2 a.m., when tiredness finally set in. Many adults stayed on, speaking of the future of the program and its current successes.
Free to play does, indeed, work. In the span of one weekend, lives were changed -- dramatically, for those who received contracts and trials, but changed as well for those who were able to envision a different future. Poor kids, who'd hardly considered a college career, much less the professional path, were now dreaming of success, not only for them but for their families.
The next morning, not even the sweltering Miami heat could wipe the smiles off the teens' faces as they made their way out of the hotel. Hugs and congratulations were exchanged, and as the players went their separate ways, they were reassured of their talents, knowing that the sky is far from the limit.
Players offered trials and/or contracts
GK Randell Black
Santa Rosa, CA
Training Invitations: Pachuca, UNAM, Morelia, Zacatecas, Leon, Necaxa
GK David Calva
Garden Grove, CA
Contract offers: Tigres, Tijuana, Atlas, Morelia, Zacatecas.
Training Invitations: Pachuca, UNAM, Santos, Leon, Club America
GK Guillermo Guerrero
Contract offers: Leon.
Training Invitations: UNAM
D Adair Casas
Training Invitations: Morelia
D Antonio Juarez
San Antonio, Texas
Training Invitations: Club America
D Jason Lira
Training Invitations: Zacatecas
D Sergio Martinez
Contract offers: Leon.
Training Invitations: Queretaro, Necaxa
D Luis Angel Rodriguez
Training Invitations: Tigres, Club America
M Sebastian Arellano
Training Invitations: Queretaro, Club America
M Radiel Nava
Training Invitations: Necaxa
M Jonathan Navarro
San Jose, CA
Contract offers: Tigres, Santos, Morelia, Necaxa, Atlas.
Training Invitations: UNAM, Guadalajara, Queretaro, Zacatecas, Leon, Club America
M Alexis Santa
Training Invitations: Morelia, Zacatecas
M Jonathan Suarez
Training Invitations: Zacatecas
F Jesus Alonso del Mundo
Training Invitations: Atlas, Santos, Morelia, Club America.
F David Bernal
San Antonio, Texas
Training Invitations: Xolos
F Victor Hugo Calvillo
Contract offers: Queretaro
F Luis Carrillo
Contract offers: Pachuca, Tigres, UNAM, Queretaro, Zacatecas, Leon, Club America, Necaxa.
F Josimar Coreas
Contract offers: Leon
Training Invitations: Queretaro, Morelia
F Miguel Angel de Leon
Ciudad: Orlando, FL
Training Invitations: UNAM, Pachuca
F Luis Alberto Garrido
Training Invitations: Santos, Guadalajara
F Giansebastian Goicochea
Training Invitations: Atlas, Queretaro, Necaxa
F Jorge Abraham Zamarron
Training Invitations: Pachuca, Tigres, UNAM, Santos, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Club America