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Colombia's Yoreli Rincón gets her own Philadelphia homecoming

As the U.S. women's national team hits town this week, the spotlight is obviously on Delran native Carli Lloyd. But she won't be the only player with ties to our region at Talen Energy Stadium on Sunday.

As the U.S. women's national team hits town this week, the spotlight is obviously on Delran native Carli Lloyd. But she won't be the only player with ties to our region at Talen Energy Stadium on Sunday.

It's understandable if that comes as a surprise. After all, the only other players on the current American roster who hail from anywhere close to here are Pittsburgh-area native Meghan Klingenberg and northern New Jersey's Tobin Heath and Heather O'Reilly.

So who's the answer to this odd bit of trivia? Try looking across the field at Colombia's squad. Yes, really. Yoreli Rincón has become one of Las Cafetaleras' rising stars thanks in no small part to help from Lloyd and famed trainer James Galanis, who's based at the Universal Soccer Academy in Moorestown.

"Carli is my family, James is my family," Rincón told me over the phone earlier this week in an exclusive interview from Colombia's training camp in Bogotá. "I love Philadelphia. Philadelphia is my city in the United States."

The relationship between Rincón, Lloyd and Galanis began in early 2014, when Rincon traveled to the United States to trial with the National Women's Soccer League's Western New York Flash. Just a few months before doing so, Rincon had won a Swedish league title playing for Malmö in her first ever year playing soccer outside her home country.

(Malmö's feat was a pretty big deal in women's soccer circles, because it was something of an upset. Although its roster had noteworthy names in Rincón, Switzerland's Ramona Bachmann and Germany's Anja Mittag, it was still surprising that they trumped a second-place Tyresö squad that included Christen Press, Ali Krieger, Marta, Verónica Boquete and Caroline Seger. And it wasn't close - Tyresö finished seven points back.)

Rincón was invited by Western New York to their preseason training camp, and she felt she was ready to go to America for the first time in her life. Lloyd was already part of the Flash, having helped them reach the NWSL title game in 2013 after finishing atop the regular season standings.

Their first conversation, Rincón admitted, started with her saying: "Hi, Carli. You are my hero." Lloyd didn't say anything too memorable in reply, but soon offered a bigger compliment.

"We were training every day very well [together]," Rincón said. "She said she liked my game, she liked my passes."

That doesn't mean Rincón's time on the field was easy. Far from it.

"It was difficult for me because in South America, and especially Colombia, we were only training on technical [aspects] - the passes, good football," she said. "But we were not training a lot physically like the United States."

Lloyd saw Rincón's potential right away, and wanted to help Rincón realize it.

"I saw someone who was super talented, very skillful, just really good," Lloyd said. "Quiet, I think intimidated a little bit just because she didn't speak great English and didn't really know too many people. But from the minute I got on the field with her in a scrimmage, it was like we had been playing together for so long. It was really easy to play with her."

But Lloyd also knew that Rincón's chances of making the Flash roster were slim. Head coach Aaran Lines had only brought Rincón in as a favor to a friend who knew her.

"She was under the assumption that she was coming and expecting to possibly make the team, but he knew all along that she wasn't going to make the team," Lloyd said. "I started to kind of pick up on what was happening and she kept telling me she had no idea, Aaran hadn't said anything to her... She almost felt like she was being invited in here but they had no reason to keep her."

Lloyd believed she help keep Rincón's chances of making it in the U.S. alive. So she called Galanis, whose training and motivational methods had sparked a renaissance in Lloyd's career.

Rincón moved to southern New Jersey. But this wasn't just any ordinary move to be close to a training site. She literally moved into Galanis' house.

"We just knew that here's a girl that isn't given a lot of opportunity in her home country as far as being able to play and make a decent living out of it," Galanis told me. "I saw a street baller with exceptional ball-handling skills and a player that was really savvy with her off the ball movements. I knew at that point that if I could change the way she thinks and teach her how to be a professional and make her physically stronger, I knew that she could go on to become a great player."

He put the idea to his wife, and she was on board.

From then on, Galanis became much more than just a coach.

"He was a boss on the field, but in the home, he was always my father," Rincón said. "If I was tired, he'd say, 'Wake up! You need to go run. You need to go train.' But he would give me good food, good things."

Indeed, Galanis and Rincón went grocery shopping together every week, and he footed the bill in order to help change her eating habits.

"He'd say, 'You need to eat more salad. Tomorrow, you need to eat more vegetables. You need to eat more meat, or chicken, or fish,'" she quipped.

Galanis could tell that Rincón was truly learning.

"She was a sponge - just wanted to learn, asked a ton of questions, and just whatever I asked her to do, she did," he said. "An amazing student that just soaked in all the information. I think that had a lot to do with me having the credibility of what I had dome with Carli, and she idolized Carli. She really took advantage of it."

Galanis kept raising the bar, and Rincón kept raising herself to reach it.

"He said in 2014: 'This year, I'm going to make you a different person, a different football player. But next year, in 2015, you need to make the difference for the national team at the World Cup," she recalled.

And when Rincón got to Canada, she did just that. She played a key role in helping Colombia advance out of the Women's World Cup group stage for the first time ever. Among her personal highlights was a sensational setup pass on the opening goal in the stunning 2-0 win over superpower France.

The victory propelled Colombia into the Round of 16 of a Women's World Cup for the first time ever.

"Here in Colombia, the federation, all the country, they said Colombia would go out in the first round," Rincón said. "Only we 23 players believed that a path to the second round was possible. We were crying that day, because never, never, in the history of Colombia, did something happen like that."

Four years earlier, when Colombia made its Women's World Cup debut, it recorded just one point from a scoreless draw against North Korea. Its other group stage games were losses to Sweden and the United States. In 2012, the team made its Olympics debut, and was swept out of the group stage by North Korea, the United States and France.

But the 2011 tournament remains memorable for Rincón because it began the long process of breaking down barriers at home.

"It was pride, being part of the first time - I was only 16 years old [and] it was a dream," she said. "We changed the mentality here in Colombia. In 2011, the dream came true."

A new dream came true in Canada. In addition to making it out of the group stage, Colombia got a Round of 16 matchup against Rincón's best friend.

Was it destiny? Rincón can't help thinking that it was.

"We preferred to play against the United States [instead of] some country from Europe," she said, "because we always like to play against the best country in the world, and for us, that was it."

Lloyd and Rincón talked regularly in the days before they took the field together in Edmonton, though most of their conversations weren't about soccer. When the time came for them to play against each other, the game was all that mattered.

The U.S. prevailed 2-0, with Lloyd scoring one of the goals. It wasn't easy, at least until Colombian starting goalkeeper Catalina Perez was sent off for barreling into Alex Morgan at the edge of the 18-yard box early in the second half.

"It was a big game for both of us," Lloyd recalled. "I was obviously still trying to climb out of the mud, but I didn't want to let her beat me... It was great to be able to take photos with her after the game and unfortunately she was very upset, as she should have been. That's really what the game is all about: building these types of relationships that you can carry on forever."

Although the U.S. won the game, Colombia played far more entertaining soccer for long stretches. They knew it just as much as everyone else did, whether in the stadium or watching on TV at home.

"I feel the best game in the World Cup - everybody said it was against France, because we won, but the best game for Colombia was against the United States," Rincón said. "We passed, we took the ball. They ran behind us and they couldn't take the ball. Wambach and everybody was mad because they didn't have the ball, and they didn't like that."

Throughout Rincón's time in Canada, her team was cheered on by a boisterous contingent of compatriots. Anyone who has ever seen those yellow-clad jerseys at a men's game knows how much fun Colombian fans have in the stands. For Rincón - and for many of the rest of us too - It was quite rewarding to see that atmosphere liven up the women's game last summer.

Colombia's entertaining style also won the hearts of many other fans across the host country.

"In the first game against Mexico, we had a lot of Colombian fans, but after we won against France, not only the Colombian people, but the Canadian people liked our game," Rincón said. "We played different from all the [other] countries... We played beautiful, you know?"

But the support from her home country mattered most of all.

"That was the first time we felt the Colombian people support us," she said. "We don't have a league, we don't have anything, Only the national team. When we saw that in the stadium, a lot of fans there behind us and supporting us, everybody was crying. It was emotional. All the country was now supporting the Colombian women. It was special. It was magical."

Rincón became one of the team's best-known players. Not on the scale of superstar male counterparts James Rodriguez or Juan Cuadrado, to be sure, but recognized nonetheless. And with that recognition comes responsibility - especially knowing how few opportunities there are for young girls to realize their dreams in the way that Rincón has.

I asked her what it means to her that she is a role model. She didn't quite get the question initially, as it was a phrase she hadn't heard too often. I tried to ask in my limited Spanish, but there isn't really a direct translation. So I settled on ejemplo: example.

That worked.

"This is a big commitment," she said. "All the girls want to be like Yoreli Rincón."

She embraces the burden, though it is not always easy to carry.

"I'm young - only 22 - and I feel that every day," she said. "I don't say 'Oh my god, today I need to be a better person than yesterday, a better girl than yesterday, a better woman than yesterday.' I know I need to be the best player on the field, because I need to show all the teams and all the girls my best game."

Yet she is not overwhelmed, because she also sees the joy in life.

"Here in Colombia, we are happy - like we are in Paris every day," she said. "In the United States, people are more... I don't know. We think in the United States, the people are mad, but it's because we are happy."

(I replied that her view of Americans is probably right.)

To have the kind of experience and perspective that Rincón does at such as young age is pretty remarkable. Even more so when you consider that Colombia's national team has been in a training camp for four months now, and haven't been paid a dime in salary for it.

Yes, you read that right.

Other than a few expenses here and there, Rincón and her teammates have given their lives over to their national federation for nothing.

"We don't receive anything," Rincón said. "We don't receive [even] $10 for four months. And they say, the federation, that you need to be here for free. Because you aren't anything big for us. That is hard."

I asked her if the players have taken their situation to FIFPro, the global soccer players' union which last year welcomed female players into its ranks for the first time.

"Yes, we talked with them," Rincón said, noting that there had been conversations as recently as last week. "They fight for us. But it is the same answer from the federation: We don't have money."

Rincón has also talked about the matter with Lloyd. She is well aware that her good friend is at the forefront of the U.S. women's team's fight for equal treatment by its own federation.

"I don't know if the [U.S. Soccer] Federation would say, 'Okay, all the world looks to us, we will pay the women and the men the same," Rincón said.

The problems are of different scales, of course. But when the reigning FIFA Women's Player of the Year takes the fight for fairness into the spotlight, it resonates across the globe.

"When the best players, like Carli, talk something about that, all the world looks at her. All the world looks at that national team," Rincón said. "I said, for example, 'You have a salary, Carli. We don't have salaries here. We only have [stipends] some money for the day. But no salary.' And now the federation says we need to work and we need to play for free. For free! This is hard. How can you work for free? It's impossible."

At one point, Rincón told me, the players considered striking and refusing to board the plane to the United States. They ultimately decided that traveling here could help them get the word out about their plight.

"We will play the first game" in Hartford, Rincón said. "But we don't know what will happen with the second game. Maybe we will play, maybe the federation will give us our money and that will change everything. But if we don't have money, we need to make some statement."

That second game, of course, is the one near her old hometown. She's well aware.

"We want the same salary, we want the same support," she said. "But it is hard, we need to change minds. It's not only money, it's how people love their women and how people love their national team."

It would be a lot easier for Colombia's players to change minds back home if their team played more often. They haven't officially taken the field since the Pan Am Games nine months ago. They haven't played game on home soil since a pre-World Cup friendly against Ecuador in April of 2015. Which means there's been no chance for Colombia's soccer fans to see their team in person since last summer's historic run of success.

I asked Rincón what it would mean to her to play a home game now. Her answer was long, and even in her broken English, eloquent:

Everything. Because if the people could look at how the women's national team plays, it really would change everything. The support would change. I don't know how the people make money for the women. Because here, the people see that the money is only for the men. The money is no good for the women.

Because the country never knows when we play, they never know when we have tournaments, against whom we play, against whom we win. The people never know that because the federation never supports television or radio of games. It's only on the internet when we post some pictures, and we say, "Okay, today we have a game," that our fans know now when we have a game.

The support is not good for the women here. I think if we have games here in Colombia, everything could change, because we'd get more funding, we'd get more love for the women, more support. We want equality in everything - not only in salaries, but in support.

I relayed Rincón's remarks to Lloyd. Not surprisingly, she was in complete agreement.

"It's just sad to see that a team that did so well at the World Cup, and is going into the Olympics, has not been paid and won't be paid," Lloyd said. "We set the standards, we demand a lot, we continue to keep fighting for what's right, and I think that we inspire everybody around us... This doesn't just stem from the United States. This is global."

This week, Lloyd and Rincón will be reunited. They will once again put aside their friendship to play soccer against each other, from the opening whistle in Hartford until the final whistle in Chester. Then they will go back to being best friends.

"Everybody knows how [Lloyd] is the best player in the world, but nobody knows how she is as a person," Rincón told me. "She's always my friend. She always calls me to get me to try to train more, to [ask] how is your family, how is your boyfriend. Every day, she always asks me if I'm okay. She's a very, very good person."

My conversation with Rincón concluded with a simple request from her: "Say to James, I'm coming back home."

Given how close she and Galanis still are, I was well aware that he already knew. But consider it done anyway.

And consider the message sent to many more fans than just him.

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