Change came to New Mexico soccer when Bigney arrived at the NMYSA from Virginia in 1999. "You'd see some of Linda's kids and ask why they were not in ODP," he recalls. Bigney did away with tryout fees and made it possible for any coach—not just those running the big clubs in Albuquerque—to recommend a player for the program. He also took steps to draw attention to players outside Albuquerque, holding ODP practices in Las Cruces, even bringing a national-team coach to scout players there. Strikers FC players were soon starring in the ODP.
"The first year I tried out for the state team [in 1998], there were all guys from Albuquerque and two from Las Cruces," says David Lara, 17, Linda's youngest son. "This year there were only four from Albuquerque, and the rest were from the south."
Despite the success of Strikers FC, Paffett believes the biggest indicator of the changing landscape of youth soccer in New Mexico was the Class 5-A state high school title won by the girls' team at Las Cruces High in 2003, the first by a school from the southern half of the state. The team was made up largely of players from the lone under-15 girls' club team in the Las Cruces region, the Jornada Sharks. Like Lara's Strikers, the Sharks reflect the diversity of Las Cruces, with nine Hispanics, five U.S.-born whites, two Slavic immigrants and one Native American. Like the Strikers, many of the Sharks are "scholarship" players, meaning that the club's coach, Ivan Strnad, pays their fees or enlists other parents to help cover costs.
Among Strnad's players last season was Taylor Lytle, who qualified for the national pool in the girls' under-15 division. She and Edgar Castillo might not have reached the national level had it not been for Wayne Suggs, coaching administrator for Las Cruces's High Noon Soccer League. He raised $6,000 to help pay travel and registration fees for Las Cruces players in the ODP, which the NMYSA matched, although not without dissent from some board members and parents in Albuquerque, Paffett says. He believes their protests were grounded in the fact that southern kids are winning spots on state teams in place of their own children. "It's been a battle," Suggs says.
John Madding, NMYSA director of coaching and education, says, "There was some resistance—as there is any time you ask the majority to make sacrifices so a minority can participate. Albuquerque is where most youth soccer players are, but when they saw how much better the state teams were with Linda's players, they became more accepting."
Paffett is now trying to reach out to New Mexico's other substantial minority group, Native Americans. An initiative spearheaded by Madding and buoyed by casino money (there are 15 Native American-run casinos in the state), is building fields and training coaches on the pueblos. "The goal is simple: Give more kids the opportunity to play," Paffett says.
Ivan Lira, while watching his brother in action at the High Noon Soccer Complex, overheard his mother say she couldn't take him from the Strikers; he looked up at her, smiling, and nodded his approval. He grabbed a ball from a U-16 Strikers player and dribbled off, just a typical New Mexico kid playing the game he loves.