Alvarez has found a home away from home with El Salvador
Alvarez will make history in Saturday's World Cup qualifier in Sandy, Utah
Formerly in the U.S. system, he will play for El Salvador against his old mates
He was able to switch sides because his parents were born in El Salvador
This isn't exactly what Arturo Alvarez pictured back when he was a speedy phenom dominating the soccer fields as a kid in Houston. But then again, realizing your lifelong dream never goes exactly to plan.
At the age of 24 the former U.S. youth-teamer is getting exactly what he envisioned. He'll step onto the field on Saturday in an American stadium, finally representing his country at the highest level. The stakes couldn't be higher: On the line is a place at the 2010 World Cup, the greatest achievement for any aspiring young soccer player.
He'll be sharing the field with players such as Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber, guys with whom he has gone to war on multiple occasions, such as qualifying for the 2005 Under-20 World Cup and the '08 Beijing Olympics.
After all the heartache of getting cut three times, struggling to find a true home for himself in Major League Soccer and failing to catch the attention of national team coach Bob Bradley, Alvarez has finally made it.
There's just one, small twist: He won't be wearing a U.S. jersey. He'll be playing for El Salvador, the birth country of his parents. And his old teammates will be trying to stop him.
To the U.S. Soccer Federation's knowledge, no former player who has suited up for the U.S. in an official game -- at the youth or senior level -- has gone on to face the U.S. Alvarez will make history at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.
"It will definitely be weird," he says. "But everything happens for a reason. I truly believe this is the way things were meant to turn out."
The strangest thing is that Alvarez's skills have long been touted as the type that the U.S. could use. And yet when it came down to it, he was overlooked time and again by U.S. coaches. There are reasons, of course -- some of his own doing, some just circumstantial. But Alvarez has spent his entire life trying to carve out his niche on the soccer field, coming up short at almost every turn.
With El Salvador, he has finally found it. Call it the American dream in reverse: More than 30 years ago, his parents came to the U.S. seeking better opportunities. Their son found his by going back to their country of birth.
American by birth, Azul by blood
Looking back, Alvarez has a laugh when he realizes that his very first soccer dream actually was to play for El Salvador. That's thanks to his dad, who instilled in him the passion for the Beautiful Game. Now 59, José Alvarez emigrated to the U.S. in 1971 from the port city of La Unión, El Salvador, and joined Houston's burgeoning Salvadoran population (more than 206,000 today, according to recent census data, giving Houston the fifth-largest Salvadoran-American community in the country). Like most of them, he lived and died with his birth country's national pastime.
"My dad's been a fan his whole life," Alvarez says. "When the Salvadoran national team played, you couldn't get them on TV. He would take me to a bar or a billiard hall so we could watch them on pay-per-view."
Alvarez remembers being dazzled by the likes of Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raúl Díaz Arce and Ronald Cerritos, legendary Salvadoran players who wore the colors of los Cuscatlecos and went on to have successful club careers in the U.S. in Major League Soccer. He remembers his father regaling him with stories of Jorge "El Mágico" González, El Salvador's most famous footballer and the first to make it big in Europe during nine legendary seasons in Spain.
"I never saw him in his prime," says Alvarez of El Salvador's all-time leading scorer. "But he was a god. The things he did were insane. Watching all those guys when I was little, it actually made me want to play for El Salvador."
Alvarez had an upbringing typical of children of immigrants in this country. Even though his parents held fast to Salvadoran traditions, customs and cuisine, he was a normal American kid in Bear Creek, Texas, a leafy suburb with a prominent Latino populace about 20 miles west of downtown Houston. But there was one trait that he took from his background: god-given soccer skills. By age 8 he was dribbling around and blazing past kids three years older than him.
To the surprise of no one that saw him play, the next few years were a whirlwind that thrust Alvarez up the American soccer ladder. He was snapped up by Texas Premier Futbol Club, a Houston-based youth soccer club that serves as a direct feeder to the national team system. While playing for the team in a tournament in Tampa as a teenager, he was discovered by a U.S. scout and was quickly invited to join the Under-17 national team.
He soon became a regular goal scorer for the U-17s and the U-18s, often surrounded by players two to three years older than he was. A year later he elected to sign with MLS by joining the league's Project 40 program, a system which, sponsored by Nike at the time, funneled the most promising high school talent directly into MLS. Alvarez was picked 12th in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes and signed his first professional contract at 17. By that June he had found his way into the Quakes rotation and scored his first goal and logged his first assist, all before his 18th birthday.
But the scouting report on him began to circulate: gifted, innate attacking skills and a nose for the goal, but lacking the complete game to succeed long-term. "As a young player, he definitely stood out," recalls U.S. Under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who coached Alvarez on that team in '03. "He had some qualities you don't often find. He was left-footed and had excellent technical skills. But I felt he needed a lot of work in all facets of the game."