Alvarez finds home away from home (pt. 3)
"They had found out that both my parents were Salvadoran and they wanted me to consider maybe changing my eligibility," Alvarez says. It was an intriguing idea. If he wasn't getting anywhere with the U.S. national team, maybe he could re-declare for his parents' birth country to continue his international career. After all, he had yet to appear in a senior national team game and therefore would still be eligible for such a switch.
There was just one problem: He was too old. Under the existing FIFA rules, a player who wanted to make such a switch had to do so before his 21st birthday. Alvarez's former teammate with the U-20s, Florida-raised Neven Subotic, had done just that only weeks earlier, declaring senior eligibility for his birth nation of Serbia.
But de los Cobos wanted Alvarez, and the Salvadoran press had already picked up on this gifted norteño who might be able to boost the goal-hungry team's World Cup qualifying campaign. The Salvadoran federation held Alvarez's hand in compiling the proper paperwork for an appeal, and he began talking the possibility over with his family -- mainly his proud father -- while waiting for the word. "Worse than waiting at the DMV," he remembers.
His appeal was shot down twice. All he could do was concentrate on his play with the Earthquakes, and after that, whatever would happen, would happen. Then all of a sudden, something funny transpired: Alvarez began to grow up and develop into the all-around player that everyone was hoping he could be.
"Toward the end of last year, you could see that he had matured," says Yallop. "We were able to get a lot out of him defensively that I don't think he's shown before. He's learning that there are other things to do in a game that are as important as going one-on-one and blowing past a guy."
But the switch to El Salvador was still in his mind. He was visited by de los Cobos that offseason while back home in Houston. The Mexican-born coach talked about keeping his players motivated, yet freeing them up to express themselves in a system that rewarded creativity. De los Cobos was eager for a left-sided player of Alvarez's talent, especially with los Cuscatlecos being closer than ever to their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Alvarez left the meeting impressed, and continued to ponder the possibility, hoping that there might be a way to make the switch happen.
This past June, it did. FIFA relaxed its rules, allowing players of any age to switch nationalities if they were able to establish citizenship -- but only if they had never appeared for their senior national team in an official game. Suddenly, Alvarez's avenue back to international play was free and clear.
The rumors began to fly of who could be eligible to transfer into the U.S. setup: German-born Jermaine Jones was the first name dropped, and New Mexico-born Edgar Castillo hinted that he would like to return to the U.S. pool after flaming out with the Mexican national team. Yet Alvarez was the first out of any of them who actually had irons in the fire. FIFA already had his paperwork on file, and he already had one foot out the door.
"The funny thing is, there were rumors I might get called for the Gold Cup team," he says. Bradley was in the process of assembling an MLS-heavy "B" team to send to CONCACAF's regional championship, and Alvarez's name was among those floated. "But honestly, my mind was already made up. El Salvador made a big push for me, and I liked the way they played."
And by early August, the word from FIFA came: Alvarez's request to switch nationality had been approved.
A new challenge
Alvarez wasn't happy. He finally got his first cap for a senior team, and his first appearance in an official international game in almost two years. But for all the butterflies he felt before his El Salvador debut on Aug. 12 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and for as well as he played as a second-half substitute, he couldn't stop shaking his head.
"Man, we had them," he says of the 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. "In that second half, we dominated. We had the ball the whole time and we knew it was just a matter of time until we scored. Their goalie was everywhere."
But Alvarez's first experience as an El Salvador international was a huge success. His new coach, his new teammates, even the fans in attendance complimented him on how well he played and how glad they were he came aboard. "He's a great player who gives us different options up front," de los Cobos told FIFA.com, "and we're delighted to have him in the team."
Alvarez felt the love immediately. "This was a group of guys who had been working together for two years now with a coach they trusted," he says of the experience. "But they're already treating me like I belong. I read and hear that they're happy to have me and need my help. I want to be that guy."
He may feel at home, but his next step is an actual homecoming. On Saturday he'll have to deal with the emotions of playing on American soil for his new team against his old one. "It's going to be surreal," he admits. "I'll have some mixed emotions. The U.S. gave me my start, and I grew up with a lot of those guys in the youth system. But as soon as I step out on that field, it's a different story."
The week will only get crazier. After the U.S. game, Alvarez will return with his teammates to San Salvador for a Sept. 9 showdown with first-place Costa Rica. Strangely enough, that will mark only his second time in El Salvador (he went once when he was 6). In that key contest against los Ticos, Alvarez will experience what it's like to play at famed Estadio Cuscatlán, the 46,000-seat inferno where, as a boy, he watched his heroes on TV. It's also the same stadium in which the fevered masses nearly spurred El Salvador to a monstrous upset of the U.S. this past March.
"All my new teammates are telling me how crazy it is," he says. "They tell me I'll never forget it. When you see that on TV, it makes you understand why the game is religion down there. I can't imagine what it will be like in person."
Highlight moments aside, Alvarez looks at his new adventure as a long-term project. Barring a miracle, fifth-place El Salvador likely won't be one of the three CONCACAF teams that get an automatic ticket to next summer's World Cup. But Alvarez says he's part of a rejuvenation of El Salvador's national team program, and the squad will be stronger in the next World Cup cycle.
"I'll only be 28 [in 2014] and I still plan on being the same player," he says. "This team has a big future. Their youth teamers are playing in Argentina and Spain, and our coach has this team heading in the right direction. I'm here for the long haul."
He also says his switch may give him more visibility for a move to a bigger club, perhaps in Europe or elsewhere. "There's been interest in Mexico already," he says. "I'd love to play there. I love what I've got here in MLS, but I want to go abroad. Hopefully that can happen, and playing for El Salvador can help me get there. I'm looking forward to bigger and better things."
But first he's got to get through Saturday, and his second cap as a Salvadoran national teamer. When Alvarez looks around Rio Tinto Stadium, where he has played plenty of times against MLS' Real Salt Lake, he'll have another realization: He has finally gotten his breakthrough. "All through my career," he says, "I felt like, 'When am I going to get my break?' Well, this is it. This is my time to shine."