Soccer

A Fan Wanted a Better Team to Cheer. So He Found It Better Players.

SAN SALVADOR — For more than a decade, Hugo Alvarado scoured the internet for soccer players who might improve El Salvador’s national teams. He was, he admits bashfully, pretty good at it.

Working from a home computer in California, he quickly identified dozens of members of the vast Salvadoran diaspora, players with Salvadoran-sounding names or Salvadoran-looking faces and places on the rosters of European professional clubs, M.L.S. academy teams and American college programs. Then, one by one, he tracked them down. Those who expressed interest in playing for El Salvador were added to the growing database on Alvarado’s website.

There was always one hitch, though: Alvarado didn’t work for El Salvador’s soccer federation. He had no authority to recruit players to its national teams. He was just a fan who wanted better teams to support.

“I wanted to see a more competitive national team,” he said this week, more than a decade after beginning his project. “So that’s why I do what I do.”

As the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar begins this week in North and Central America, there has been much talk about the rebuilding of the United States men’s team in the wake of its 2017 qualifying failure. But its first opponent on Thursday, El Salvador, also has new leaders, a new coach and a new crop of bright young talents. And the reconstruction it has undertaken may be just as comprehensive.

El Salvador was the first Central American country to qualify for the World Cup, in 1970, and the first to return to it a second time, in 1982. Its team has mostly floundered since then, boxed in by small thinking, big scandals and an inability — or an unwillingness — to modernize. Quietly, that may all be changing.

Last fall, El Salvador’s federation hired Diego Henríquez, a former youth international who had played college soccer in the United States, as its first sporting director. Henríquez’s first hire was Hugo Pérez, a respected former U.S. Soccer player and coach.

Their aim, initially, was to focus on stocking El Salvador’s youth teams with better players, from anywhere they could find them. A former United States under-17 player from Indiana with a Salvadoran father. A New York Red Bulls academy product with a Salvadoran mother. A pro in the Netherlands who was actually eligible to play for four countries, and had already worn the jersey of one of them. Even Pérez’s nephew, a former U.S. youth soccer teammate of Christian Pulisic, fit the bill.

That kind of open-arms strategy is hardly unique — Italy, England, Spain and many other countries have all fielded foreign-born players — and Pérez knows the value of it as well as anyone: Born in El Salvador, he played more than 70 times for the United States and represented the country at the Olympics and the World Cup. And he, like almost everyone else in Salvadoran soccer, had heard about the detective work Alvarado was doing.

“Bringing talent from different parts of the world could be a plan in any federation,” Henríquez said, noting the United States has long done it, and Mexico has more recently made overtures to players born and developed in America. “That’s part of restructuring our identity.”

Ambition, though, works best with a plan. Under Pérez and Henríquez, El Salvador has a holistic approach: top-quality training and coaching, but also improvements in nutrition and sleep and fitness and an emphasis on “what it means to represent El Salvador, what it means to wear a national team jersey, what it means to come to a camp and be a professional.”

The early returns have been promising: Hired to run the youth teams, Henríquez and Pérez added responsibility for the senior team in April, after worrisome results in an earlier round of World Cup qualifying led to a coaching change. Building around young players and new recruits, El Salvador advanced to the knockout round of this summer’s Gold Cup, a major regional championship, and even gave Mexico a brief scare before exiting in the quarterfinals.

El Salvador has few illusions about the job ahead in World Cup qualifying: The region only gets three and a half spots in next year’s tournament from its eight-team octagonal qualifier, and few expect La Selecta, as El Salvador is known, to claim one. The region’s representation will grow, however, when the World Cup expands to 48 teams in its next cycle.

“Our main objective is 2026,” Henríquez said. “We just started, and we know that.”

More new players will be part of the plans by then, but so will Alvarado. On the day he was hired last October, Henríquez told reporters that he was open to “anyone who can help” El Salvador improve. One of his first stops was to the man in California with the home computer and the rich knowledge of the kind of players who might be available. In October, Henriquez hired Alvarado as the first full-time scout in the federation’s history.

Henríquez said the plan was to refine Alvarado’s hobby and to focus him on finding not every potential Selecta player, but specific ones. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, he would in essence become a personal shopper, presented with a shopping list of specific needs — supplementing an age group’s team, for example, or providing options to look at in a certain position, or a distinct role. He, and Henríquez, still aren’t sure how much talent might be available.

“I need five Hugo Alvarados in North America,” Henríquez said.

Alvarado’s latest find, the 20-year-old midfielder Enrico Dueñas, is just the kind of prospect he and El Salvador will be seeking. A veteran of the Ajax and Vitesse academies and eligible through his lineage to play for four countries — the Netherlands, where he was born, but also El Salvador, Finland and Curaçao — Dueñas was discovered by Alvarado through the player’s sister, whom he met after methodically going through a list of Dueñas’s Facebook friends.

Receptive to the approach, Dueñas made his competitive debut for El Salvador in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico in March, and he has been included in Pérez’s roster for the first three World Cup qualifiers.

On Sunday, he arrived in El Salvador for the first time.

For Alvarado, Dueñas and another player he identified long ago, the uncapped Costa Rican import Cristian Martínez, have created the kind of buzz he used to covet when he first created his website.

But they are also rekindling the memories of how his father used to talk about El Salvador’s glory days of 1982, and 1970, before civil war sent the country’s citizens scattering for safety around the globe. Now he is trying to bring at least a few back.

“I strongly believe that we have the talent to put a team in the World Cup,” Alvarado said. “And I’m a strong believer that foreign-born Salvadorans can get us there faster.”


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