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 United States-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 an American audience and American 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 United States national team star who grew up in New Jersey and now coaches the United States 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 hard-working 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, N.J., and played at the academy, left nearby Marlboro High after three years to sign a professional contract with the 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.”
Ramos added that the biggest problem faced by the three development academies was not so much subsidizing the training of financially struggling players, but rather providing transportation for those players in the state who couldn’t afford to travel longer distances to practices and games.
“These academies cannot afford to buy a van or hire a bus to accommodate so many players spread out over large areas,” he said. “This makes the smaller academies working with more local players a lot more important.”
DiMauro said members of his coaching staff arranged car pools to practices and games for many of their 80 players, who range in age from 8 to 18. The club has also established an outdoor practice site at a field in South River, closer to where a large number of his Hispanic players reside.
One of those players is Xavier Tapia, a 12-year-old defender who is among the 80 percent of Hispanics from a dozen Latin American countries making up the New Jersey Xolos rosters. (The rest of the players are white, often middle-class residents from the surrounding cities and towns.)
Before a recent morning workout, Tapia pointed high in the direction of two action posters of Moreno hanging on a wall of the facility. “My dream is to make it to the pros like he did,” Tapia said.
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.’”
Moreno helped forge the relationship between DiMauro and the Xolos of Mexico. Now both organizations are hoping to reap the benefits of a nearly 3,000-mile-long pipeline that connects Tijuana, one of the world’s busiest border cities, to Cliffwood, once part of a Dutch shipping settlement.
“Believe me, there are top-notch players from this area who are just waiting to be discovered,” Moreno said. “All they need is a chance to be seen, and an opportunity to prove themselves.”