Soccertown, USA

Can Las Vegas become a hotbed for the global game?

When 13-year-old Hayden Canizalez walked off the field at Bettye Wilson Soccer Complex on May 27, it may have been his farewell to Southern Nevada’s soccer scene.

But that’s not bad news, for either him or the scene: Canizalez is off to Spain on June 9 for tryouts with the youth teams of several professional clubs. If he makes one, Spain will be his new home. If he doesn’t, the whole family will move to Washington, D.C., in the fall, where he’s been accepted to the youth academy of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United.

Canizalez is one of two players on his local team, Universal FC, who will be playing with professional teams in the coming months. This may be a sign of things to come for soccer in the Valley, part of a promising recent trend that includes a Las Vegas club, Players SC, becoming the first team outside California to form a relationship with MLS’s LA Galaxy; the U.S. Soccer Federation holding its first high-level licensing course for youth coaches here; and the city lining up its first top-flight international soccer game, between Italy’s Juventus FC and Spain’s Real Madrid, for Aug. 5 at Sam Boyd Stadium. These events represent the continuum from first stepping onto a field to living the dream—succeeding in U.S., European or Latin American leagues.

Only one Las Vegan—Herculez Gomez—has reached those heights. Raised here from a young age, Gomez played for the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup. He was recently called up again, scoring the team’s only goal in a May 30 game against eternal powerhouse Brazil.

How can Las Vegas create more players like Herculez? Soccer is a young man’s game; many big clubs the world over identify players in their early teens. One obvious link in the chain from a child’s first touches on a ball to the pros would be if MLS clubs held Las Vegas tryouts for their youth teams.

So far, the Colorado Rapids has been the only club to do so, through a two-year-old relationship with a local club, Downtown LVSC. The arrangement is similar to the one between Players SC and the Galaxy, and includes training for the local club’s coaches.

Real Salt Lake would have been the first MLS team to hold open tryouts for a residential academy earlier this spring, but the club had to cancel because of lack of interest—the result, said event organizer Oscar López, of local teams keeping top players to themselves in order to win more tournaments.

This emphasis on winning above all else can impair player development, says Claudio Reyna, the U.S. Soccer Federation youth technical director. The former national team captain has been saying for at least a year that winning should not be the goal for children and early teens. He points to the technical skills and love for the game taught in Barcelona, the world soccer mecca.

These are new ideas for the U.S. soccer scene, especially at such a high level. The federation oversees the sport and tries to pass them down to the thousands of coaches working with young players on fields across the nation. But sometimes old notions are slow to change.

At the same tournament where Canizalez played his last local game, a coach fresh from the recent licensing course was talking to a parent on the sidelines. The instructors, she said, had told coaches to focus on developing players rather than winning at all costs. But when the coaches formed teams and played against each other, things got a little heated.

“What about all that ‘Winning isn’t important’ stuff?” the coach asked.

“Where do you live,” an instructor answered. “In Disneyland?”

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