They just call it the valley.
The Rio Grande Valley isn’t a true valley, in the strictest sense of the world. It’s technically a floodplain, nearly 1,900 square miles of oxbow lakes and mangroves and Jerusalem thorns situated at the southernmost tip of Texas all spilling out of the coffee-and-cream Rio Grande. It is hot here, seemingly always, and the children play in the resacas and the meanders and ride across the bridges to the interconnected islands.
Two of the five most Hispanic cities in the United States by percentage are in the Rio Grande Valley, and a third is miles up the waterway toward El Paso. It is an uncommon place in these days of Trump, as life plays out in the hypothetical shadow of a wall. Some immigrants who passed over the nearby border into the valley wait and pray. Others stake Trump signs into their lawns.
In the midst of all this chaotic morass, one of the fastest growing regions in the country is littered with soccer balls. They are in the streets, kicked among school children playing 5-on-5 with goals fashioned from shoes as the ball skips along the sun-cracked asphalt. They are on bleached fields and on fake turf kicking up rubber crumbs and in driveways hammering dents into garage doors.
The valley is soccer mad. Its high schools routinely challenge schools from the moneyed districts of Houston and Dallas at state, and it just might be the only region to favor soccer in a state that treats football as a sponsored religion. Until recently, the only local outlet was in the high schools, where the ubiquitous, rhythmic thump of drums provides the backbeat for the movement on the field. It had not had a local Division I college team since UT Pan Am shuttered the program in 1997, and for the next 15 years the closest DI school to the valley was a five-hour car ride through the Texas lowlands to Houston Baptist. Texas still, to this day, has four Division I men’s programs in a state the size of Western Europe.
While the rest of the country slowly modernized its soccer infrastructure and hewed to either a regional MLS club or a Development Academy hook-in, the valley was a dormant soccer cloister. Its club teams were too far removed from the glare of the academy to join, and for years the Houston Dynamo, the closest pro team, was hardly interested in developing players in its own city, let alone in a region cloaked in shadow nearly 350 miles away.
And so the valley passed out of all knowledge. Where pro teams fail to gin up scouting resources colleges, several of which have as many scouting resources as MLS clubs, often provide a valuable bridge. The valley benefited from neither. Its players, fired by the unique soccer passion cultivated in a place of fused cultures, rose and fell in prominence in their own bubble. Skill went undeveloped, talent unseen, careers wasted.
This was largely what greeted Paul Leese when he arrived in the valley in the winter of 2014. He’d been hired to restart the UT Pan Am men’s soccer program the school, which absorbed UT Brownsville and rebranded as UT Rio Grande Valley the year before Leese arrived, had closed two decades earlier. An Englishman, Leese realized almost immediately what he had in the valley, a dense overflow of talent seemingly lying untouched on the region’s fluvial terraces.
The soccer landscape in the valley has changed dramatically since then, probably more so in a shorter period of time than in any region in the country. Since 2015, when Leese’s Vaqueros played their first game, the valley now has a full fledged Division I program competing in the WAC, and a Dynamo-connected USL franchise that began the same year. Rio Grande Valley FC finished in second place in the Western Conference in its first year in 2016, and its coach, Wilmer Cabrera, was recently promoted to coach the first team after the Dynamo’s dismal season.
In 2017, RGVFC will almost certainly play in the single prettiest non-MLS soccer stadium anywhere in the country. This is five miles from UT Rio Grande Valley’s campus in Edinburg.
— AsianAdidasGirl (@AsianAdidasGirl) February 5, 2017
When I spoke with Leese, his energy practically crackled like a live wire.
“It’s a unique place,” Leese said. “They love their soccer, but they’re very attached to a specific brand of soccer. Wilmer did a good job in harnessing that with the USL team down here last year. From my personal experience, they’ve got a lot of skill down here, but it is somewhat secluded. It’s secluded both from a scouting standpoint – there are not enough coaches coming down here to watch talent – but equally it works the other way. There are not enough games or competitive exposure for the youth players here to go and experience a different type of game.
“When I first arrived two and a half years ago, I’m sitting there watching a high school game. You have the drums beating, it’s February or March, I’m in a t-shirt and shorts, it’s gorgeous weather, tons of family and fans in the stands making a lot of noise. And I was really excited. There was a very vibrant soccer community within the youth level.
“The type of soccer down here is very technical, very skilled with the ball, but a little bit casual with the speed of play. You get a little bit more time on the ball, and as such they do create talented midfielders typically. The minute you step into the college level, Division I is a very physical game. Sometimes the skillful players can get knocked around, and it’s just the fact that they haven’t been exposed to that in their four years of high school.”
Leese gave me an example. He recently had a competition for one starting spot between two players. One was a local talent – extremely good on the ball, well-versed in possession soccer – and the other was out of the vaunted FC Dallas academy. There was no real skill difference between the two, but the FCD player spent the last four years on an academy team that won back-to-back national titles at the U16 and then U18 levels. His comfort in pressure, his ability to avoid difficult challenges and his experience playing against players in the more physical DA were obvious. The local player, while perhaps better on the ball, was visibly uncomfortable going toe-to-toe with that same sort of physicality. The battle went to the FCD man.
This expansive difference in playing style, perhaps, is the defining characteristic of American soccer – that there is no defining characteristic. Jurgen Klinsmann sought out to find one and failed, and Bruce Arena realized long ago was nearly impossible to establish.
“I think it’s a lot more difficult in our country,” Arena said. “When you talk about a style of play, obviously Brazil would be a bad analogy because Brazil is geographically a big country, but the other countries are small: Germany, Holland and Spain. We have a country that’s huge. It’s almost 3,000 miles from east to west, whatever it is north to south, different time zones, different climates. It’s challenging. Having one style of play in your country is difficult to establish.”
Brad Friedel, who was installed as the U.S. U19 coach at the beginning of 2016, told me something similar last year.
“In the United States, it’s different. Some of them are brought up supporting the Mexican league, which is a hugely supported league, and that’s what the kids grow up wanting to watch and emulate. So when you get them into your camp, you have to see how you can work those players into your style. Or is that a style you like, and you want to bring other players in and assimilate to them? Neither is right or wrong, it’s just as long as you’re consistent with how you’re doing things. Very difficult to compare the two, to say, ‘Where is MLS? Is it like the Championship in England?’ It’s impossible to say that it’s like a Championship in England or something like that. You’d have to go to a country that has more of the elements.”
This is the valley’s story. There is no region in the country more emblematic of the idea that the U.S. is a diaspora of a hundred thousand different elements and styles and small cultural differences pouring into one pot to create unique pockets everywhere. The valley is a case study in what happens when a region is left alone for so long that it develops its own style, its own soccer culture, its own player archetype.
The Dynamo pipeline into this region is immensely important, perhaps more so than any USL franchise in the country. Rio Grande Valley FC – and UT Rio Grande Valley by extension – is a headlamp beaming into darkened places yearning for light. It is brimming with talent, both unique and skilled enough to add flavor to a USMNT player pool in desperate need of a skill infusion. The region has its own challenges of course. The lack of high-end club competition from outside the bubble is an issue, reinforced by the immense travel burden.
But the passage to the valley is now open, its floodplain slowly draining. For Leese and those who live in the valley, it’s about time.
“At the end of the day, I’m a white boy – an English one at that – in a Hispanic community, and it couldn’t be more friendlier,” Leese said. “The people here are fantastic.”