One of America’s most prominent soccer tournaments for Latino youth players is coming to the Philadelphia area for the first time this September.
Alianza de Fútbol, which has run events nationwide since 2004, will host an event on Labor Day weekend at United Sports in Downingtown.
Alianza’s history of spotlighting often-overlooked Latino players has led to professional opportunities for some participants. Famous examples include Monterrey’s Jonathan González and Santos Laguna’s Santiago Muñoz. González grew close with one of Alianza’s cofounders, Brad Rothenberg, whose father, Alan, is a former U.S. Soccer Federation president who oversaw America’s hosting of the 1994 men’s World Cup and the launch of MLS.
As Alianza grew over the years, its success became known as much for what it included as what it lacked: significant attention from MLS and the U.S. national team program. American club and national team scouts have long been criticized for failing to pay enough attention to Latino immigrant communities where soccer is a big part of life.
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Last December, Alianza was bought by For Soccer Ventures, a company run by Union part-owner and academy backer Richie Graham. The deal brought Alianza into the heart of the establishment.
Graham is a former member of MLS’s influential product strategy committee, and a key player in many league initiatives. FSV president Ryan Mooney held major roles at U.S. Soccer for a decade. Alianza managing director Joaquín Escoto is now FSV’s executive vice president of operations and product strategy.
“Just being part of the system is something Alianza hasn’t been able to do the past 20 years,” Escoto said. “All the Latino kids that we’re scouting, they do not want to go to Mexico. They go to Mexico because there were not opportunities here.”
Now the opportunities are there, as MLS teams invest more in their youth academies. The Union have been leaders in that, one of the first teams to have a full-time residency program within their high school in Wayne. They have also aggressively recruited prospects from parts of the country that aren’t covered by other teams’ territorial rights.
Other MLS teams are now following suit, and young players are noticing.
“I think any player, as the league is growing, they look at MLS as an amazing opportunity,” Escoto said.
Mooney wants the U.S. national team program to be seen the same way. He believes Alianza has the best shot it’s ever had to make that happen, and knows that it comes at a crucial time.
The U.S. and Mexican programs recruit dual-national prospects these days like college sports teams recruit high school players, and their fans are becoming just as invested in the process. Gonzalez’s pick of Mexico sparked a major outcry in the U.S. Muñoz, who played for Mexico at the 2019 under-17 World Cup and this year’s Olympic qualifying tournament, could be a future battle. (He can change his allegiance before he plays for a senior national team.)
“We want to find ways to be aligned and to have more opportunities, more scouts, more exposure, more awareness for the Federation’s national team identification efforts,” Mooney said. “That area is a gap that we want to bridge with the Federation given the history of the program.”
Does U.S. Soccer want the same?
“I believe they do,” Mooney said. “We’ve had early-stage but, I would say, very productive conversations.”
Those conversations have included CEO Will Wilson, sporting director Earnie Stewart, and women’s national team general manager Kate Markgraf. (The last of those hints at a forthcoming expansion of Alianza’s work on opportunities for Latino girls.)
“There has been a huge shift lately on recruitment — I think that U.S. Soccer is going the right way,” Escoto said, with recent examples including Yunus Musah and Sergiño Dest. “The Mexican national team is watching, and they’re noticing that it will be something that they’ll have to work at.”
Escoto encouraged U.S. Soccer to “go hard” after Muñoz and give him “a hard decision to make,” even if the odds of his changing his mind are slim.
“I just hope that it’s a healthy competition for the best for the kid,” he said. “Why not try?”
This story has been corrected. Richie Graham used to be a member of MLS’ product strategy committee, but no longer is.