By Neil W. Blackmon
It’s a crisp, cold and clear, winter half-moon early February night, the kind where the stars are in full regalia, and I’m early for the first of my early spring Men’s League games at a soccer park in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood . A few of my new teammates are introducing themselves to each other, stretching or putting shin guards on, but I am, for the time being, less interested in those things. Instead, I’m intently watching a seven on seven league game that’s wrapping up in front of me. The action is mostly end to end as seven on seven tends to be, especially in leagues where “enforcement” is really the wrong word for the written age requirements. Theoretically, the league is 20-30, but both teams deploy one lumbering forward apiece who seem to have a Yakubu-like (and that’s being polite) mentality about tracking back to defend, and the knee brace on one of the two players suggests he hasn’t seen the lighter side of thirty in several years. The rest of the players are an equally disparate group, a ragtag blend of youth, elder statesmen, athletic dynamism and plodding grinders who even in their younger days likely lacked a healthy dose of talent. It is the game at the soccer lover’s best—fourteen men and an out-of-shape referee who has swallowed his whistle—the game for the game’s sake.
As I sit to stretch, I’m transfixed by the class player of the pitch, a slender, fit, fast and smooth-dribbling teenager in well-polished red T-90s. Manning what is essentially the old Ajax Velibor Vasovic libero position, or the “free man” in what in a seven on seven game functions as the “last line of defense”, he is far and away the best player on the field and the only one either side (substituting three bench players apiece liberally) could possibly deem irreplaceable. With fluid movements, the defender breaks up attack after attack, all while pointing teammates in one direction or another. With a simple verbal command to “switch,” he transitions from last line of defense to attack consistently. He is the rare Men’s League player in complete control of the proceedings, and his teammates know it, sending all manner of passes, even the rare men’s league back pass, his direction with a bellowed “Capitano! Ball.”
In one sequence, a midfielder from the opposing team plays a very clever cross-field diagonal ball to a wing player who plays an additional quick pass. The resulting space leaves the tall defender in the red shoes defending two charging attackers alone. What follows is flawless football. The young man yells at the goalkeeper to move forward, “Cut the angle!!” Edging slightly forward, he closes just enough space to make a through ball or pass enticing but mildly dangerous. It also creates a ninety-degree angle situation, which is far better than trying to defend at 180 degrees. Not wanting to risk a pass, the left-sided attacker tries to blow by the young man, but he’s anticipated this action too and seems unworried about a chip, after all—the goalie is forward enough to challenge that pass. He meets the attacker near the edge of the area, dispossess him, turns ninety degrees towards the center of the midfield and starts an attack the other direction, yelling “switch” to the holding center midfielder. The midfielder obeys, and moments later, a dazzling through ball cuts open the defense, finding the aforementioned heavy-set forward who, despite moving about as quickly as a fully-loaded North Georgia freight carrier, finishes well. The big man immediately turns to find his provider, clapping his hands in the air and yelling “Capitano!! Brilliant ball, Capitano!!” The kid smiles warmly at him, puts his thumb up, points at the forward and gives the thumbs-up again, shouting “Good goal, good goal.” A few minutes later this whistle blows, and I’m still impressed.
Confession time: this cold February Atlanta evening isn’t the first time I’ve been in awe of the young man’s skill. A regular in my autumn men’s league, which was right and proper eleven on eleven, the outcomes were eerily similar—exception being in those matches he anchored a holding midfield spot that produced a league leading fourteen goals, three of which I had the dubious privilege of picking up out of the back of my net. He’d sent me a text indicating he was playing before me tonight, and I told him I hoped to see the second half. As he leaves the field, he spots me and jogs my direction, soccer ball in hand and wearing a giant grin. “Pretty fun match, but short on goals,” he says. I shake his hand, smile back and say nothing. What is there to say? Every match would be fun with that skill-set. At 18, he’s a men’s league phenomenon, a star and captain on a local high school team and a young man whose ceiling would seem to be the stuff of Sistine Chapel’s and fine museums—limitless, imaginative, and infinite. Except it isn’t. Sergio, which is what we’ll call him for the rest of the story as it is the namesake of his favorite professional player, is an undocumented immigrant.
“EL MEJOR NOVATO”
He’s the darling of the diehards in one country, the long-awaited messianic “Numero Diez” in another. He’s the savior of a proud, storied, hard-times have fallen franchise. But he’s more than that. He’s a young league’s beacon, offering proof that it’s (at the onset) cynically-viewed academy and developmental dream is working. He’s not yet a complete player, but he’s one with a complete skill-set. That’s what drives fans from the two countries wild, causes sleep deprivation. He possesses tactical acumen and awareness well beyond his seventeen years. He’s a slick if not wholly consistent yet passer of the ball, is fluid and quick in his movements, and fully willing to do soccer’s dirty work—tracking back, getting involved in tackles, defending on set pieces. Ten thousand meters is a barometer for a midfielder with a good engine. That’s a light day’s work for this young man. If his scintillating talent isn’t enough–he’s all you’d want off the field too. He’s shy but fan-friendly, a good student, and an obedient son. He’s reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, and all eyes are fixed on him.
As Najar prepares for his second full MLS campaign, he seems intent on focusing on improving the plight of DC United, who are coming off one of their worst seasons in franchise history. As an original MLS franchise and one in a large market, Najar is a breath of fresh air and a bright-eyed kid who can turn things around mostly by his lonesome if he continues to develop at the current breathtaking pace. It’s heady stuff though—being a franchise savior and being so young. Soccer is littered with stories of “new and golden generations”, of “sure-thing” superstars who can’t handle the onerous burdens that are attendant to such lofty expectation. Around DC United club teammates and personnel, there is a deafening hush at the very mention of these expectations. But extend the search for buzz beyond the training pitch and dressing room, and the hush becomes a roar. After all, this is the very franchise that signed the man who was to be American Maradona, Freddy Adu, at thirteen and put him on the field in league play a year later. Adu would dazzle you with his unearthly technical skill and personal ability, but his appetite for the little things that make complete team soccer proved overwhelming. Now 21, Adu is conspicuously absent from the roster Najar is charged with turning into a winner, laboring in the Turkish second division trying to resuscitate a career that only four years ago seemed as if it couldn’t go wrong. Dressing room hush or no, it is nearly impossible not to bring up Adu when one speaks of Najar. The MLS Rookie of the Year seems, publicly at least, oblivious. Balancing tutoring sessions with training and a full-match schedule, Najar’s focus appears perfectly tunnel-visioned: make his club better, establish himself as a legitimate star in a league that needs young stars, become the complete player DC United thought he would be when he entered their academy four years ago.
A Virginia resident since moving to the United States from Honduras with his parents on a work visa at thirteen, Najar starred briefly on his high-school team as a freshman before earning an academy spot. One of the first and certainly the most prominent of MLS Academy kids to achieve stardom, Najar is the embodiment of the idea behind the academies. Find areas with large swaths of youth soccer clubs and highly-competitive environments (Atlanta, Los Angeles, the DC Area immediately come to mind), intervene in the case of the best players, and develop future talent for both the league and national teams from the bottom-up. There was only so much the US Soccer Developmental Academies could alone. They missed from time to time (Clint Dempsey, for example) and MLS Academies, at least in some respects, were designed to fill in the gaps. His head coach his rookie season, now LA Galaxy assistant Curt Onalfo, put it this way speaking to ESPN’s Leander Schaerlaeckens: “It’s a hotbed here in DC…It was just a matter of getting them the right training and the right coaching.” Other future stars are beckoning, such as USMNT and New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo, but Najar is head of the class, and MLS couldn’t find a better representative. His future is the stuff of Sistine Chapel’s and museums.
“ATLANTA IS HOME”
It takes some convincing but Sergio, who admits fatigue and is not particularly looking forward to a long bus trip home, agrees to wait until the conclusion of my game, when I can give him a ride. We win 3-2 and the extra hour and a half has made us both hungry, so we decide to stop for coffee (he has a coke) and eggs. It’s over a meal when Sergio opens up a bit about his situation.
Sergio’s Mom passed away from cancer before the family left Mexico, he explains, and he is an only child. All he’s known is his Dad, his father’s immediate family, and football. “I came to America with my Dad when I was six. He had a temporary work visa in New Orleans and we lived there for a little over two years. Then we moved here,” Sergio explains. “When you’re seven or eight, you don’t think much about where you’re moving or why. Dad said he wanted to be close to his brother (a contractor in Atlanta) and I love my Uncle so I didn’t think much of it. Dad told me they had better soccer leagues and that I would be with my cousins, and again, at seven or eight what kid asks questions.” What Sergio’s Dad didn’t say was that his temporary EB-5 visa had expired and that remaining in the country was illegal. It wasn’t until Sergio started to excel as a soccer player that he realized there was something different about him.
“I was always a pretty effective player,” Sergio says, and his choice of the word “effective” reminds me of the little truths about the differences between native English speakers and those who call it a second language. Like an American fluent in Spanish, grammar, adjective and verb choice tend to be more clean and accurate when you speak English as a second language. Native speakers take liberties with the language that make less sense to foreigners. “When I was about eleven, I was invited to play on a traveling all-star team of players two years my senior. I remember being so excited about it. It meant I was one of the best.” Sergio’s father was hesitant and inquisitive. He was concerned that Sergio would have to travel via plane to a pair of the tournaments the team, and he didn’t want to take the risk that someone in airline security would inquire about young Sergio’s immigration status. “I was so upset,” Sergio recalls. “I didn’t understand why Dad wouldn’t let me play and I became angry and mean to him after that. He said he had his reasons but how do you explain that?”
The incident repeated itself for three more years, and when his Dad again refused to allow a fourteen year old Sergio to join a U-16 all-star side, Sergio reached a breaking point. “I just asked him directly what he problem was. I felt like he didn’t think I was good enough. If I wasn’t good enough, why did he keep enrolling me in local leagues? It was hard to fathom what I kept playing for if he didn’t believe in me.” Sergio’s father explained the risks involved the best he could, but rather than make things better, their relationship, for at least a short while, became more chilled. “I wasn’t there mentally. When you’re small, you’re parents are awesome. There’s no way they can do something illegal, so you think. It’s a shock.” Sergio watched as his friends played on all-star teams and traveled the country, and he was bitter his Dad had taken that opportunity from him. “Basically, I did everything I could to show my displeasure. Dad emphasized studies, so I studied less. Dad said come home at nine, so I showed up at ten. It was a tough time.” Sergio’s grades slipped—he went from a straight A student to B’s and C’s in one year. He ignored restrictions imposed by his Dad for disobedience. Things at home were icy and bleak.
Backed into a corner, his father made a decision. He would take away the last bond he had left with his son and hope it reignited their relationship. He would take away soccer. For six months, it was a battle of wills. Finally, Sergio relented. It was killing them both inside, Sergio recalls. “When all you have is one parent, I think your bond is stronger over mutual passions,” he says. “For me and my Dad, it was always soccer. We’d wake up at 7AM Saturdays, even if I had matches later in the day, and watch the games from all across the world. Ronaldinho, Steven Gerrard, Raul, Xavi, Xabi Alonso. We bonded over the great midfielders. It was hard because even that was strained. That summer was the EURO, and I remember sitting in silence watching Holland play with my Dad and I just decided enough was enough. I wanted to play again.” Two weeks later, Sergio was back on a soccer field with a new local team, and he was once again the best player on the field. He scored thirty-one goals in ten games as a central midfielder, and this time, when the all-star invitation came, Sergio swallowed hard and respectfully declined. “I told them I had an injury. But really, it was the first time I really understood what being an undocumented immigrant meant.”
Sergio played his first year of high school anyway, with his father’s blessing. He made varsity and scored eight goals for a state playoff team. His coaches, unaware of his personal situation, said the future was limitless for a fifteen year old with his movement, on-ball ability and vision. “I knew the truth,” Sergio says. “That was the hardest thing. I’m American. I like the same things most kids like—FIFA 2011 on Playstation, hip hop, going to the movies. When Landon scored against Algeria, I ran around my house screaming and hugging my cousins. It was like they scored for me, for my friends. I’m just like most my friends, except I’m not.”
Sergio’s on-field excellence as a freshmen came with a price. As his coaches began notifying all-star coaches and local colleges about his talent, he and his Dad worried about potential red flags. Again feigning injury, he played in Men’s Leagues like the one I watched him play in on that cold February Atlanta night instead of continuing with his high school team as a sophomore and junior. “My Dad and I decided I would play as a senior. The game is in my blood, it is part of me as a person and us as a family. So I kept playing, just not at school,” he says.
Now a senior, Sergio is playing out his senior year as team star and captain—“Capitano”—just as his Atlanta Men’s League teammates call him. But he knows the future is unclear at best. College would appear to be out of the question, as without a social security number, obtaining financial aid is extremely difficult. There is a bit of misinformation involved in thinking one can’t get aid without a social security number, but there are other concerns about raising awareness to his immigration status. He is not poor, but distinctly lower-middle class, so pay your own way is out of the question. As is a soccer scholarship, thanks to his undocumented status.
Family members have suggested he return to Mexico, either for college or to try out for a second division club, but that’s not a step Sergio is completely ready to embrace. “College will be hard in Mexico. Of course, I speak Spanish. But I don’t read it or write it well, so academically, it would be extraordinarily difficult. And the idea,” he pauses and takes a sip of his coke, visibly shaken. “The idea of returning to Mexico, that’s not for me. Atlanta is my home.”
Andy Najar might be narrowly focused on becoming a better player and making DC United a better club, but most the fanfare around him is less concerned about those things. These days, one can’t bring up Andy Najar in conversation with a fellow soccer aficionado without the conversation moving within a sentence or two to “the choice.” “The Choice,” of course, refers to Najar’s decision about national teams. Will he play for the country where he was born, Honduras, or will he choose the country where he developed as a player and plays professionally, the United States? Najar doesn’t seem to know himself. He’s said he’ll wait and make the decision that is best for him, and Najar should be applauded for that attitude.
There are other factors involved. The U.S. naturalization process is lengthy and it is complicated, and Najar is not yet an American citizen. He plays here on an athlete visa, one that he has little trouble renewing as both a notable professional player and the son of legal immigrants seeking to naturalize themselves, but again, that process is not completed. While that process will be resolved and positively, until it is complete FIFA rules will preclude Najar from donning the red, white and blue. As such, unless Najar decides in the near-future to suit up for Honduras (a distinct possibility), American diehards always on the lookout for the next American Maradona will have to wait patiently. Patience, however, is something only Najar seems to have.
Articles and media coverage in both countries have been constant, and the pressure in soccer-mad Honduras, where Najar is probably the third-most loved (until/unless he chooses the USA) soccer figure in the tiny country, behind Tottenham Hotspur’s Wilson Palacios and American defender Jon Bornstein, has been a continual source of wild speculation and misinformation. The media-driven debate over Najar’s choice is well-documented by Fanhouse writer Brian Straus in this piece, but suffice it to say that there is immense pressure on Najar to choose the homeland Catrachos.
Fortunately, and to some extent remarkably, Najar doesn’t seem to be wilting under that pressure. Perhaps trying to show a sense of humor over the whole thing, Najar tweeted earlier this week “What do everyone think…USA or Honduras?” Just so readers don’t think there is no pressure coming from the USMNT faithful, the responses to that question from USMNT fans were quick and they were definitive. And anyone who has watched the treatment of New Jersey-native Giuseppe Rossi in the past three years since he jilted the Yanks for the Azzurri of his parent’s homeland Italy should be well-aware that a choice by Najar to play for Honduras will make him a top-flight villain among US Soccer loyalists. That’s a heavy burden too, especially for a player hoping to become a full-fledged star in an American league—but again, it does not seem to be affecting Najar negatively to this point. Jason Davis of Match Fit USA writes a compelling little piece on Najar’s refreshing, seemingly aloof attitude to the whole drama here, and he’s right: it appears as if Najar is having fun with his choice, something he should do, and something that is altogether refreshing in this media-intensive, social-networking driven age.
Right now, your guess is as good as mine as to what Najar will ultimately decide to do. But the dark underbelly of Najar’s story is the countless number of Sergio’s who through no fault of their own lack the autonomy to make their own choice.
For every Andy Najar, there are countless of young men and women who would love to make a choice about their future but simply can’t. Many are A-students who hope to be nurses, doctors, bankers. Others are soccer players, many of whom excel at the youth and high-school level. One such player is FC Dallas Academy product Ruben Luna, a standout player who, at least for the time being, can’t choose to play for the USMNT, a lifelong dream. Luna is in a position to change that, of course, having found his way into an MLS Academy. For Sergio, college is a better path. An A-student again (he boasts a 3.6 GPA), Sergio is pretty certain he could gain admission to a good school where he could pursue a career-producing degree. He also thinks he could play soccer. “I have no doubt I could play at that level and my coaches agree with me. It’s a matter of access. My status means the options are extremely limited,” Sergio notes.
A recent piece of legislation offered hope for countless students of undocumented immigrants. A centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s immigration strategy and strongly advocated by right-leaning, moderate and liberal Latino political advocacy groups, The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, affectionately referred to as the DREAM ACT, offered a way out specifically for children whose undocumented status was no fault of their own. The proposed law offers a pathway to citizenship for children whose parents came to the United States or remained in the United States illegally. The DREAM ACT would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school if they attend college for two years or commit to two years of military service. This substantial and fair expansion of visa and citizenship eligibility would seem a common-sense solution given how many students like Sergio had nothing to do with the fateful decision that created their status. Indeed, these students often graduate high school, as Sergio will this May, only to find themselves without career options or the potential to pursue higher education, forever-limited by their parent’s decisions. When I bring up the DREAM ACT with Sergio, he becomes pensive and withdrawn. The sting of the politics surrounding the proposed law visibly affects him.
“Five votes,” Sergio says, staring down at his now empty plate of eggs and bacon. “Five votes.” You can tell the moment of the vote is stuck with him, so I ask if he remembers where he was and what he was doing when he found out the vote failed in the Senate after passing the House of Representatives. He nods. “I was leaving soccer practice. My Uncle”, he pauses, “My Uncle is a citizen…he called. He spent days calling our congressmen and our Senator, urging them to vote for it. Both our Senators (Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson) voted no. So close, but so far. Five lousy votes.”
Make no mistake, politics killed the bill. The venom surrounding immigration debates in this country is nothing new and in increasingly hostile political times any immigration legislation that expands citizenship possibilities is highly-scrutinized and potentially politically toxic. The vote around DREAM certainly reflected all parameters of those political considerations. Very little support existed in the right-leaning south, where even the Cuban son of immigrants Marco Rubio voted nay. In Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, immigrant heavy regions where the debate around reform is characterized by ugly politics, nativist racism and xenophobia, very few votes could be found and former supporters flipped-flopped, with Senator Cornyn “for the DREAM ACT” for a while but strongly against during the vote, and longtime Arizona Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain, a former DREAM advocate, staunchly against. Put together as a whole, the bill could not muster the requisite votes, and although President Obama has vowed, most recently in the State of the Union Address, to put the DREAM Act back to the forefront of his immigration agenda, the future outlook remains bleak thanks to xenophobic misconceptions, a lack of political courage and old-fashioned racism towards undocumented immigrants. “Why can’t they come here the right way?,” is a popular rallying cry against such legislation. The problem with, and of course the subtle, hidden veil of racism that cloaks such comments is obvious: students like Sergio did nothing wrong in the first place, unless who your father is has become a sin in the United States.
As I pay the check, I probe further, asking Sergio if he harbors resentment towards his adopted-country as a result of its pungent politics. He is taken aback. “Resentment? No. As I said, I’m an American. It’s more that I don’t understand. I just want to go to college, live here, have a family, be as good a Dad as I’ve had one day. Little things. Maybe someone will afford me that opportunity.”
For Sergio, that opportunity would open a host of doors. Clearly talented enough, in his eyes and his coaches eyes, to play soccer at the Division 1 level—Sergio could prove to be another in a long line of American kids who excelled collegiately first before heading off to successful careers in the professional ranks, whether it be in MLS or across the pond in Europe. Stu Holden, Robbie Rogers, Maurice Edu, Clint Dempsey, Teal Bunbury, Oguchi Onyewu are just a few of the names that come to mind when one thinks of this route. Or Sergio could play soccer or not play, and still receive a college education. All he’s asking for is a chance.
“Just the chance to go to school like so many of my friends are about to get,” he says. “I was raised…” he pauses again, thinks and rephrases. “I was told by my Dad we stayed here because America is a place where anything can happen, anything is possible. Educate yourself, work hard, make your own dreams. It should be all in front of me.” Unfortunately, for every Andy Najar who makes his own choice and has his dreams out in front of him, there are countless Sergio’s who don’t.
Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.
CORRECTION: The piece suggests Najar plays for DC United on an athlete’s visa (P VISA). This is incorrect. Najar has a green card and likely had one when he signed with DC United. His family immigrated on a visa.