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Exporting Talent : Santa Margarita's Mora Is One of Six Southern Californians Boosting Hopes of the Mexican National Women's Soccer Team

June 18, 1999|FRANK SCHWAB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susie Mora has always dreamed of playing for her country in international soccer competitions.

She just hadn't figured, until recently, that the country would be Mexico.

Mora, 20, is a graduate of Santa Margarita who will begin her junior year at USC this fall. But when she takes the field Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., she will do so as a member of the Mexican national women's soccer team.

She is among 11 American-bred soccer players on Mexico's 20-member team, which will be making its World Cup debut.

Indeed, the players wearing red, white and green uniforms have more ties to Southern California than the ones in red, white and blue.

The U.S. women's team, which opens Saturday against Denmark in the first game of a doubleheader at Giants Stadium, features only three players from Southern California. The Mexican team, which plays Brazil in the second game, has six with Southern California connections.

Besides Mora, who grew up in Mission Viejo, there's defender Barbara Almarez, who is transferring from Ventura College to USC this fall; midfielder Laurie Hill, a UC Santa Barbara graduate; goal-keeper Linnea Quinonez, from San Diego State; forward Gina Oceguera, who played for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; and forward Monica Gerardo, from Simi Valley and Notre Dame.

Mexico's head coach, Leonardo Cuellar, is the men's and women's soccer coach at Cal State Los Angeles. His assistant, Henry Sosa, coaches club soccer in San Diego.

To be eligible for Mexico's national team, athletes must be Mexican citizens or possess dual citizenship. Besides those born in Mexico, citizenship may be granted to anyone who has at least one parent born in the country or has a grandparent born in the country, in which case both parent and child have to request citizenship.

Mora's parents, Martha and Florencio, were born in Mexico.

Second Chance

Mora, born in Santa Ana, began playing soccer at 8, when her mother signed her up for AYSO.

"I always wanted to be in soccer," her mother said, "but I could never play because girls were supposed to stay home."

After moving with her family to Mission Viejo at age 12, Mora continued on to the club level as a member of the Mission Viejo Shamrocks, then at Santa Margarita High, where as a senior she helped the Eagles to their first of three consecutive Southern Section Division II championships, and finally at USC, where she has a soccer scholarship.

While in high school, Mora participated in the U.S. Olympic player development program and qualified for district and state teams. However, when she didn't qualify for the regional team, she figured her dreams of playing in the Olympics or a World Cup were over.

That's when Jim Millinder, her coach at USC, suggested she try out for Mexico's national team, which had been looking north of the border for help.

"They have such great players in the U.S., I never thought I would have a chance [to make the U.S. national team]," Mora said. "But since I'm Mexican, that gives me a chance."

Mexico has little chance of playing for the World Cup title July 10 in the Rose Bowl. Mexico isn't expected to be among the two teams advancing out of Group B, which also includes Brazil, Germany and Italy.

Then again, 1 1/2 years ago, few people expected Mexico even to be a participant in the 1999 World Cup.

In 1997, when Sosa was hired as a full-time assistant, he joined a program trying to build a Cup contender from the ground up.

"They attempted to qualify in 1991 and 1995 and they were beaten soundly," Sosa explained. "I mean soundly: 6-0, 7-1, 8-1. . . . They would get together three weeks before and try to qualify."

Sosa said the Mexican soccer federation poured money into the women's team, boosting its investment from about $11,000 per year to about $300,000.

"The hierarchy went from the old line to a progressive president, Enrique Borja, and a progressive vice president, Enrique Silva Teran, who agree with FIFA that the women's game is important," Sosa said.

Sosa's job description included scouting talent, which meant a thorough search of Southern California.

"I looked in Texas and all around the country," Sosa said, "but there just were a lot of talented players in Southern California. California is one of the hotbeds for soccer in the country."

In a recent survey conducted by the Soccer Industry Council of America, California has 2.2 million soccer players, well ahead of second-place New York, which has 1.4 million players.

The 20-member U.S. team includes three players from Southern California: Julie Foudy of Mission Viejo, Joy Fawcett of Rancho Santa Margarita and Shannon MacMillan of Escondido.

Gaining Support

When Mora left to train with the Mexican team last summer, she had visions of free soccer equipment, clothes, shoes and. . . .

All kinds of other things that never materialized.

"I thought 'Cool, I'm going to get all this gear and stuff,' " she said. "My friends are like, 'Hook me up, Susie.' "

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