Rookie Carlos Alvarez, chosen in the first round of this month's MLS… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
Soccer may not have saved Carlos Alvarez's life. But it may have helped save the life of one of his coaches.
Kevin Bacher had never been to East Los Angeles when he came to recruit Alvarez for the University of Connecticut five years ago. So he wasn't sure what to do the night gang members blocked his way as Bacher searched for Alvarez's house at the end of a dimly lit cul-de-sac.
"There were people on the corner and they surrounded his car," remembers Alvarez, whose soccer prowess was well respected, even among the gangbangers. "I came out and they're my friends. And so they just leave.
"But he was really scared."
As it turned out, signing Alvarez proved worth the danger since he made two all-conference teams and was named the Big East's top midfielder during his four years at Connecticut. And he topped that 10 days ago when he was chosen second overall in Major League Soccer's SuperDraft, going to Chivas USA.
That makes for a double homecoming for Alvarez, who will not only be moving back into the crowded basement bedroom he shares with his three younger brothers, but he'll also be wearing the same Chivas jersey his father Crecencio wore as a promising youth player in Guadalajara more than three decades ago.
"It's a dream come true," Alvarez says. "Living here at home, being next to my family, wearing the jersey that my dad loves."
Proof of Alvarez's sincerity is abundant in his family's cramped house atop a hill in City Terrace. Hanging on the wall are photos of a young Crecencio, a younger Carlos and an even younger niece posing in the red-and-white jersey of Chivas de Guadalajara, the iconic Mexican team that eventually inspired Chivas USA.
And tethered to two Big East soccer trophies atop the television are Mylar balloons with messages of congratulations, delivered by an aunt after the MLS draft.
But if either the trophies or the balloons left Alvarez feeling special, that was dashed a day later when he found himself waiting in line to use the restroom — a common occurrence in a house with seven people and a dog but just one bathroom.
"Humble? I should be humble. Just the way I grew up from nothing," says Alvarez, speaking in a voice just above a whisper. "Just getting stuff, that doesn't mean I need to start thinking I'm a big shot. Because at the end of the day I still need to help my parents. I want to give something back to the community and to be something that the kids can look up to."
That, too, is sincere. Because as good a soccer player as Alvarez is, his coaches all agree he's an even better person.
"Probably one of the best individuals I've ever been around," says Bacher, now a youth coach in Connecticut.
"One of the best people we've ever had," agrees UConn Coach Ray Reid. "Fantastic kid. [A] coach's dream."
Even new Chivas Coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, who first met Alvarez just two weeks ago, is sold.
"I only know him a little," Sola says in Spanish, "but unless I am mistaken, he's a better person than he is a soccer player."
And the coaches are just as unanimous as to who gets the credit for that.
"His family, they fight and claw for every inch," Bacher said. "And that's why he will be successful in the MLS. His parents are great people."
Crecencio, 47, was born into a family of 14 in soccer-mad Jalisco and first came to California with a youth team when he was a teenager. A few years later he returned to join his father in Los Angeles, where he met and married Alicia.
Together they perfected a series of compromises while raising their eight children. Like the time Crecencio insisted baseball was out — only to have Alicia enroll the kids in a youth league at a local park.
Sports, after all, were a way to keep them away from the gangs.
"I had bad friends," Alvarez says. "Some people, they're enemies now and they shoot at each other. If you have something going, why should you spend time with" those people?
Later it was the gangs themselves, aware that Alvarez had something going with soccer, that provided him protection.
"There were people that … told me, 'You know what? Don't hang around us,'" Alvarez remembers.
Carlos' older brother was the first to make a run at professional soccer — albeit with limited success — so when Bacher came to the Alvarez house offering both a chance to play soccer and an opportunity to become the first in his family to attend college, there wasn't a lot of discussion.
"His soccer, at some time, is going to end," Crecencio says in Spanish. "And then he's going to have his profession. We're proud."
For the time being, the 22-year-old Alvarez, who is three classes short of a degree in Spanish literature and culture, is simply happy to be back home fighting for a place in the Chivas lineup.
"My family means everything to me," says Alvarez, an attacking midfielder who had 20 goals and 42 assists in 82 games at UConn.
"I wouldn't have changed anything. I'm happy how everything turned out. Now I just need to show [Chivas] why they picked me."