Arturo Alvarez finds home away from home with El Salvador (cont.)
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."
The call of destiny
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.