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On Building an American Identity

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — A weathered, eight-lane track rings the field at Estadio Mateo Flores, site of the 2011 CONCACAF U20 Championship. Far from the pitch, on a narrow strip of real estate between lane eight and the near-empty stands, six young Americans juggle a single Nike ball. As I observe from the press box that doubles as a VIP area and triples as general admission seating, United States substitutes Cody Cropper, Eder Arreola, Moises Hernandez, Omar Salgado, Revolutionary SnakeSacir Hot, and Sebastien Ibeagha stay loose. It’s halftime of what will eventually be a 4-0 U.S. victory over Suriname. In an effort to protect the fragile grass, tournament officials won’t allow teams to warm up on the field until the quarterfinals. The group wears turf shoes to avoid slipping when they venture onto the worn rubber of the long-jump runway behind the benches that bisects the patch of grass they’ve annexed.

You hear a lot about the US soccer melting pot. The recipe calls for one part traditional American athleticism, a cup of the technique and possession favored by our southern neighbors, a bit of English blue-collar effort, and increasingly some German organizational ingenuity, with dashes of various other flavors borrowed from nations with better soccer pedigrees than ours. Blended together, it produces, well, something. No one really knows yet; the mixture is still simmering. Nor should we; we’re only partway through the beginning of this new era in American soccer.

Which brings us back to Guatemala. While a Latin-infused remix of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” blares in the background, the Red, White, and Blue hopefuls attempt an array of skills that wouldn’t be out of place in viral freestyle soccer clip. They show off for no one but themselves. Sure, they would rather be sitting in a dressing room in the bowels of the stadium preparing to play the final 45, but the group of six young players creates a joyful tableau regardless, their wide smiles matching their outsized talent.

The group is as diverse as it is happy. El Paso-born Salgado, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Major League Super Draft, previous called Chivas de Guadalajara home but made himself a persona non grata in Mexico after accepting Thomas Rongen’s call to join the American side. Ibeagha’s father played for the University of Nigeria before bringing his young son to America where he eventually joined the Houston Dynamo Academy and enrolled in Duke University. Hot’s parents hail from Montenegro while Hernandez is of Guatemalan descent. Ipswich Town FC’s Cropper has a father who played professionally in the US after emigrating from England. These distinct stories combine to create the new reality of the American national team. Before matches, they all sing the “Star Spangled Banner” with the same intensity.

Yards from the Estadio Mateo field, they laugh with, and at, each other. But more importantly, they learn from one another. The bold ambition of Salgado’s left-footed touches encourages his MLS counterpart Hernandez to attempt to catch the ball with his off foot. The directness of Cropper’s game briefly alters the focus of the session from playful trickery to getting everyone a touch. Ibeagha’s sheer physical power contrasts with Arreola’s deft, precise flicks. It is mix and match, pick and choose, give and take; the six players combine their grab bag of skills to create a sweet mix. They take bits and pieces from each other while retaining their individuality.

Under intense lights near an empty field in Guatemala, one can see the bright future of American soccer developing in a game of keepy uppy played by half a dozen reserves in front of a chain link fence.

Noah Davis (www.noahedavis.com) covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com and has reported from exotic locations including Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa, and Columbus, Ohio.

Moises Orozco, the seventh sub on the 18-man gameday roster, is in the locker room preparing to start the second half in place of Amobi Okugo.

A week later, of course, varying states of despair will replace the joy as Guatemala shocks the US 2-1 in the quarterfinals, thus earning a place in the 2011 U20 World Cup—the main reason teams came to Central America in the first place.

I can count on my toes the number of times Vancouver’s striker-in-waiting touched the ball with his right foot during the week-and-a-half-long tournament. He clearly boasts immense potential, but it’s very raw. After a bad touch by one of his fellow benchwarmers sent the ball into the long-jump pit, you half expected him to hop on one foot when he went to retrieve it.

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On Building an American Identity

by Noah Davis · April 22, 2011

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