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Mexico Seeks Olympic Stars -- in Santa Ana

April 05, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

It makes sense. Santa Ana has one of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents in the United States. And so it was that hundreds of young women showed up over the weekend at Santa Ana Stadium to test their talent for international soccer -- not for the United States, but as members of the Mexican women's national soccer team, which came to town to recruit.

At stake is a longshot chance that one of them could make this summer's Olympic team -- from Santa Ana, playing in Athens, for Mexico.

Santa Ana city officials quickly embraced the opportunity to play host for the tryouts, hoping it would prove an opportunity for some of the 10,000 youths who play soccer in the community.

Saturday was proclaimed Mexican Women's National Soccer Team day by the Santa Ana City Council.

"I'm pleased there's an interest in building more opportunities for young women," said Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio. "I think what holds true in Mexico holds true here: Soccer is a male-dominated sport. So the more interest in the sport [among women] in Santa Ana, the more balanced it will be."

The tryouts, organized by Santa Ana-based club coach David Zimmerman, attracted young women of Mexican descent, and who hold Mexican or dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, from as far away as Florida. National team Coach Leonardo Cuellar, a former women's coach at Cal State Los Angeles, flew from Mexico City to scout talent 12 and older.

The most promising players were to have been invited back Sunday for a second look, but the Sunday session was canceled because one of the Mexican talent scouts had to return home unexpectedly.

Cuellar said he felt an obligation to give everyone of Mexican descent a chance to wear Mexico's colors. "We don't want to close the doors to anybody," he said. "We want to field the best team possible. If a Mexican girl lives in Japan, China or Nigeria and comes out and makes the team, then so be it."

The United States has been exporting female players to Mexico for years. The fledgling Mexican women's national team was stocked with 12 Mexican Americans -- on a roster of 20 -- in the 1999 women's World Cup. The red-white-and-blue influence couldn't save Mexico, which finished last.

Six Mexican Americans played for the Mexican team that qualified for the Athens Olympics last month in Costa Rica. That number could grow if Cuellar spotted some big-time talent Saturday.

In December, two high school players from the Los Angeles area were plucked from a tryout camp in Pasadena for Mexico's youth development program. That camp convinced Cuellar to hold one more tryout before the Athens Games. After fielding requests from cities all over the country with strong Latino populations, Cuellar settled on Santa Ana -- a city of 350,000, 75% of whom are Latino.

Cuellar stressed that he was not out to steal America's best players but was simply taking those unwanted by the U.S. national team.

"The competition to make the U.S. national team is tremendous," he said. "It's very obvious that even those of Mexican descent prefer to play for the U.S. team, which is more prestigious. But when that doesn't work out, they come to us, and we're glad to have them."

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