On a stormy Saturday, a group of young boys wearing red soccer uniforms and cleats in a dizzying array of colors clip-clopped out of the rain and into an old warehouse, where wealthy residents of this historic community along Raritan Bay once stored their antique cars.
That space is now occupied by an unlikely tenant, and serving a very different clientele. Xolos Academy FC New Jersey, a soccer academy affiliated with the Mexican first-division team Club Tijuana, has transformed the warehouse into a synthetic-turf field of dreams, its walls covered with logos and action photos of a favorite son.
They coach soccer here now, but what the academy really offers is opportunity for the sons and daughters of Hispanic immigrants from the area. These are the kind of players who routinely fall through the cracks of U.S. soccer, victims of financial hardships that sometimes prevent their talents from being properly nurtured, and exposed, in the pay-to-play culture that dominates youth soccer in the United States.
“Some of these players have been kept in the shadows simply because they could not afford to play the game they love,” said Joe DiMauro, a longtime coach and trainer who runs the warehouse academy. It is the fifth American affiliate of Club Tijuana, and the first in the Northeastern United States.
The academies are part of an effort by Club Tijuana — the Xoloitzcuintles, or more simply the Xolos — to appeal to fans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Xolos was the first team in Mexico’s top division, Liga MX, to go bilingual in its public relations, and it has courted a U.S. audience and U.S. players since the team’s inception in 2007.
“Each of our U.S. academies has the right coaching staff in place, which will help elevate our players’ games,” said Roberto Cornejo, the deputy general manager of Club Tijuana, which has four Americans on its 22-man, first-team roster. “We believe in our youth system very much, and we are going to keep on developing these kids and giving them a chance to play at the highest level.”
Tab Ramos, a former U.S. national team star who grew up in New Jersey and now coaches the U.S. under-20 national team, knows the area, as well as the struggles of young Hispanic players looking to get noticed. He also knows that finding and cultivating as many of them as possible is not only in the players’ interests but in U.S. Soccer’s.
“The more clubs that are out there and the more people we have catering to every type of market, in particular the Latino market, that’s a positive for our game,” Ramos said.
As the raindrops fell harder on a recent Saturday visit, DiMauro sat comfortably inside the converted warehouse, sipping coffee from behind a small desk as he watched some of his recruits run through a series of warm-up drills to the tune of Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente.”
“We’re looking for talent in corners and places that other academies do not care to look,” DiMauro said. “We spent years training kids in the local ‘La Ligas’ for little or no money to develop them as organized soccer players, and now many of them are returning to us knowing they can compete on a bigger and much more affordable stage.”
DiMauro reached into a drawer and pulled out a brown paper bag filled with crumpled singles and five-dollar bills and a handful of quarters, about $540 in tips, representing the cost of about one registration fee.
“This is someone’s hard-earned tips, the kind of payment we get from many of our parents, some of whom are waiters, dishwashers and day laborers and do not speak English,” he said. “They are hardworking people who hope we can help their children, through soccer, to a better way of life.”
Amando Moreno, a 21-year-old forward with Club Tijuana, is a player from this area who managed to escape the shadows. Moreno, who grew up in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and played at the academy, left nearby Marlboro High after three years to sign a professional contract with the New York Red Bulls at age 17. He joined Club Tijuana the next year, making mostly domestic cup appearances with the club, and made his Liga MX debut in April 2016.
“As a kid who grew up in a poor family, it was embarrassing for me to hear my dad tell my coaches that he couldn’t afford to pay for my training, or that he wasn’t able to get me to a game because we had no car to get there,” said Moreno, who was once trained by DiMauro and later played for Ramos on the under-20 national team.
“I know exactly what some of these kids are going through,” he said. “I have lived their lives.”
Ramos, a midfielder who played 81 times for the United States in a Hall of Fame career, including World Cup appearances in 1990, ’94 and ’98, noted that while New Jersey has three well-established development academies — the Red Bulls Academy in East Hanover, the Players Development Academy in Somerset and the Cedar Stars Academy in Tinton Falls — there was a definite role to be played in assessment and evaluation of talent by a newer entry like the Xolos.
“Each of our three academies start from the top down,” Ramos said. “But smaller clubs like this Xolos Academy can step in and identify talent from the bottom up, as early as ages 5 and 6, and then hopefully by the time those same players are 10 or 11, they can move on to bigger academies that could provide them with national competition.”
Moreno returned home last month to visit family and friends after Tijuana was eliminated in the Mexican league playoffs. He made a stop at the Xolos training center to say hello to DiMauro and his son, Phil, a trainer and coach who helps run the academy.
“I wish there was a place like this when I was growing up,” Moreno said as he walked beneath a large mural depicting an actual xolo, a hairless breed of dog that serves as Tijuana’s team logo, alongside a pit bull that is the logo of its New Jersey cousin.
“I guess the players here see me as an inspiration,” Moreno said. “They look at me and think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”