By Ben Joravsky

The girls on Salvador Morote’s soccer team look much like all the other soccer players who file into the cavernous field house this cold and dreary Friday night. But there’s one big exception invisible to the eye–unlike the other giggling 10- to 12-year-old would-be soccer stars, Morote’s players come from Chicago.

The story of the team, known as Chicago F.C. (for football club), and its surprising rise to the top of a ferociously competitive year-round league underscores one of the great curiosities of local soccer: Chicago is home to immigrants from dozens of soccer-crazed countries, yet the sport is dominated by kids raised in the burbs. The team’s presence at an indoor-league game in Palatine on a crummy New Year’s night can be viewed in one of two ways: either Morote and his fellow parents are now as nutty as all those pushy parents in suburbia, or at long last the city’s catching up.

“What we’re doing is very positive for the girls,” says Morote, a 44-year-old clinical psychologist. “It builds self-esteem and confidence. It makes warriors out of you. But these are warriors that do not kill. These are warriors that win their battles through artistry and teamwork.”

According to Morote, soccer was the means by which he overcame shyness and insecurity as a youngster growing up in Peru. He played day and night, and rose through the ranks of organized soccer until at age 20 he was a highly regarded goalie on Alianza Lima, a professional team.

But in the 1970s, he says, he gradually lost interest in the game. He worked as a journalist, joined APRA, a left-of-center political party, and felt compelled to leave Peru after he ran afoul of the ruling conservative party. In 1982, at age 28, Morote and his wife, Catalina, settled in Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in psychology, bought a house, had two children (Jaime, 14; Cynthia, 11), and built a practice. In 1991 he returned to the game when he decided to coach his son’s team. What he saw he didn’t recognize. “In Latin America soccer is the main sport,” he says. “It’s played and followed with intensity and passion. The goal is to become a premier player.”

But the league Jaime joined (the north lakefront branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization) was largely recreational. Many parents didn’t care if their children won or lost, much less developed into premier players. Morote felt himself an oddity, not only because he insisted on regular practices and tightly knit drills but also because he was a Latino immigrant who spoke with an accent.

“The league struck me as an elite organization created to please the needs of an upper-income group of white parents,” says Morote. “There are Latino families in neighborhoods all over the north side, but by and large they do not join AYSO. I think I know why. There is a hostility, an arrogance. People were constantly correcting my English in condescending ways. Two kids from an opposing team once chased my son, yelling at him, ‘You dirty Puerto Rican, go back to Puerto Rico.’ I confronted the parents and demanded how they had learned this racist attitude. Everyone tried to brush it off.”

As Morote discovered, soccer in Chicago is largely divided along ethnic lines. Most black kids never even play the game. The city’s best Latino, eastern European, and native white players rarely play against each other, let alone on the same teams. The sport is dominated by suburban clubs and high school teams whose players have been together since early childhood.

Morote was determined to change that, at least for his daughter Cynthia, who showed remarkable talent at a very young age. So when another parent, Hilliard Blank, suggested they put together a traveling squad, Morote jumped at the chance.

Traveling squads, essentially all-star teams that play in tournaments around the region, are not rare in the city. But Blank, Morote, and another parent, Peter Nelson, wanted to go one step further. They wanted to keep their girls together year-round. That meant playing primarily in the suburbs, since there are no year-round leagues for girls in the city.

In 1997 they created Chicago F.C. and joined an under-12 league featuring powerhouse teams from Wilmette, Evanston, Inverness, Palatine, and Deerfield.

It’s proved to be an expensive and time-consuming operation. They had to find at least 11 girls (they still have one or two slots to fill) willing to devote so much time to soccer. They had to raise money for a league fee, uniforms, equipment, soccer balls, and goal posts. And they had to schlepp–to games and practices all over the region. “You name it, we’ve played there,” says Nelson. “In the winter we play in an indoor facility in the suburbs, but in the fall and spring we play outdoors, and that means we have to find a home field when opposing teams come play us. You have no idea how hard it is to find a soccer field in Chicago. We finally found a place at Winnemac Park. Sometimes I think we’re crazy.”

From the start Morote was the coach, since he clearly knew more about the game than the other parents. “There are two basic styles, European or Latin American–I prefer the Latin game. In European soccer you run certain patterns. You have to release the ball on the first or second touch. Everyone knows where to go. The Latin game is based on individual creativity. It’s about ball control and movement. It requires footwork and pirouettes and juggling and feints and fakes to beat your opponent one-on-one and penetrate the defense. The game becomes unpredictable and complex. It depends on individualities and individual skills.”

To build those skills Morote, a large man with a booming voice, drives the team hard. They practice twice a week during the winter, three times a week the rest of the year, a relentless series of dribbling, passing, and shooting drills, not to mention sprints, stretches, and jogging. The hard work seems to be paying off, as the team is now handily defeating teams that once trounced them.

“I am proud of our accomplishments but I am not so worried about winning and losing–I hate the concept that if you are not number one you are a loser,” says Morote. “I remember a game in the World Cup between Mexico and Germany. The Germans prevailed because they repeated the same play over and over, running down the wing and entering the ball to the center forward who at six-foot-two towered above the smaller defenders. Eventually they scored on a header. But what I loved about that game is that Mexico played with creativity and courage. In my mind they played like champions–who cares what the final score.

“I tell the girls not to be afraid of losing, that life is filled with loss–the loss of illusions, the loss of hope, the loss of friends and loved ones. Compared to that, what is one loss in one game? If you lose, lose with dignity and self-respect so you will never doubt that you gave your best. Do I push them? Yes, I push them very hard, because they need to be pushed to find the greatness within them. I do not say that for all children it has to be soccer. But it should be something. They should find what is in them to be great.”

The routine is too much for some youngsters and they drop out. “It’s like the kids who devote so much time to ice-skating, dance, or gymnastics. As parents we wonder. Are we pushing them too hard? Are they missing too much time with their friends?” says Nelson.

“It’s much different than when we were kids,” adds Blank. “The spontaneity of games is gone. You don’t just run outside and play football with your friends. It’s all so structured, so organized. Part of it is that parents in the city don’t feel safe to let kids go outside and play. But it’s also part of a larger trend. Overall, it’s for the best–I hope.”

Morote says he struggles with other issues. “I have much to learn, particularly about coaching girls. They are different than boys. When boys come to practice, they come to play. With girls, it is more like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? I’ve got this new Beanie Baby.’ I say, ‘Girls, did you come here to socialize?’ They say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ And, you know, what is wrong with that? Why can’t they take time during stretches to talk and socialize? Maybe it is I, the old coach, who has to learn.”

The girls seem eager to play. They aren’t intimidated by Morote’s gruffness; they call him by his first name, tease him after practices, and credit him with teaching them teamwork and discipline. “Salvador may yell, but he’s really nice,” says Nelson’s 11-year old daughter Taniko. “I love being on his team. It’s all about working as hard as you can to be as great as you can. I’d be just sitting around if I wasn’t here.”

And so on New Year’s night, as a blizzard approached, Taniko and her teammates found themselves in a dark, dank three-field indoor soccer facility in a far northwestern suburb. It was four against four on a carpeted floor with coaches running in replacements as players raced themselves to exhaustion.

On this night, Chicago F.C., playing a team from Buffalo Grove, started sluggishly and fell behind by two. Morote, grimacing with displeasure, called his daughter Cynthia to the side and chastised her for a bad pass. “Listen to me, look at me when I’m talking. You know not to do that. Either you play with the intensity required to be a premier player or you do not.”

When Cynthia, one of the league’s best players, returned she promptly scored one goal and set up another. Chicago F.C. won 9-5.

Afterward, Morote gathered them for a pep talk. “I like how you played through the sluggishness,” he began. His talk carried on for 15 minutes. Parents looked at their watches. It was after nine. The storm was coming. The kids were tired. “I know our coach is a great speaker,” parent Kathleen Walsh teased. “But it’s time to go home.”

“OK,” said Morote. “Just one more thing. Don’t forget practice. See you tomorrow at ten.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.