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He’s an American success story . . . but it’s a difficult path to citizenship

4 Aug

Miguel Aguilar’s boyhood home in Mexico is a two-story brick structure on the corner of Litografos and Libramiento Regional streets. Beyond a narrow park and divided road, a concrete channel cradles the Rio Grande and divides Ciudad Juarez from El Paso. ¶ Some 1.5 million people live in the Mexican border city; the Aguilars practically lived on the border. ¶ A mighty kick was capable of launching a soccer ball over the trickle of water and tall metal barriers. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have that many to spare,” the D.C. United rookie midfielder joked recently.

With fields and playgrounds nearby, the working-class neighborhood was a kid’s delight. But as a new millennium dawned and drug cartels took root, Ciudad Juarez would soon become one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

On Aug. 30, 2004, his 11th birthday, Miguel and older brother Andres climbed into their grandfather’s truck. With temporary visas, they were headed for the Bridge of the Americas and, ultimately, to Sacramento. His mother and sister were flying to California, where Miguel’s grandparents lived.

He has not stepped foot in his home town or native country since.

“At that point, there was no going back, especially to Juarez,” he said. “It was better to maybe struggle a little more in Sacramento than going back to Juarez and risking something happening with the violence.

 “We decided to stay here and fight our way through.”

Eleven years later, Aguilar has made it through. He is neither a U.S. citizen nor a permanent resident, instead navigating a legal process that might be unique among professional athletes in the United States. In January, a month after he graduated early from the University of San Francisco, United claimed him with the 17th overall pick in the MLS draft.

Aguilar has appeared in 14 of 24 regular season matches (four starts) for a team leading the Eastern Conference and the league’s overall points race. He made his pro debut in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in February and started both U.S. Open Cup games this summer.

United’s coaching staff is enamored with not only his speed and technical ability but his work rate, a trait borne from an unconventional background.

“There was nothing easy about his upbringing,” said Tibor Pelle, Aguilar’s youth coach and mentor in Sacramento. “He always had to take the hard road. So when he stepped on the field, he played with hunger. Every touch of the ball was taken seriously.”

‘Managing the bounces’

Aguilar was the lone soccer player in his family; his father and brother played basketball. He worshipped Chivas Guadalajara, Mexico’s most revered club, and star forward Omar Bravo. He remembers, at age 8, staying up all night to watch El Tri, the national team, compete at the 2002 World Cup in Asia.

His proving grounds were four dirt fields a few blocks from home. One was almost crescent shaped, so a winger like Aguilar on a direct run would leave the boundaries and re-enter the field.

There, on those unforgiving surfaces, he learned the importance of ball control.

“It was all about your touch and keeping the ball close, managing the bounces,” he said. “You had to be technical to play on that field because the ball was bouncing everywhere. It’s not like grass. Ball control was important because it could hit a pebble and bounce away.”

A network of parents kept a close eye on the energetic children. Frontera Nueva elementary school was a mile away. Aguilar’s father worked in manufacturing; his mother sold homemade tortillas and gorditas.

As years passed, Aguilar became more aware of the escalating violence. Across the street from the family house, he witnessed two men beating up another. The blood stains that never seemed to fade were a constant reminder of danger.

An uncle got mixed up with a bad crowd. One day, he disappeared without a trace.

“It really started to sink in,” he said. “It hits you hard, but then it happens so often and you hear it all the time, people become get used to it.”

The city was becoming the epicenter of violence between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.

The last straw for the family, he said, was when his mother and sister were walking in a park. A man approached on a bicycle and tried to sweep up the teenager. She fought back and escaped. The man rode away.

“The situation was bad,” said Aguilar’s older sister, Claudia. “You would hear about this girl disappearing, that girl disappearing. I didn’t want to leave the house and go to school.”

Their mother, Carmen, decided it was time to go. (By then, she was separated from her husband.)

At a yard sale, Miguel remembers relinquishing his beloved stack of Disney videos, Hot Wheels cars and action figures.

“I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I’d been there all my life. It’s where my friends were. I was afraid to go to a new school and make new friends. It was for the best, and my mom knew that.”

The 1,200-mile ride with his brother and grandfather took them through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. A week later, without a lick of English in his vocabulary, Aguilar was enrolled in sixth grade.

While his mother and siblings struggled to make ends meets, he was often alone at home during middle school. They lived in more apartments than he can recount. Between games, some weekends were spent on a couch in the Pelle home.

“I remember asking him what his greatest fear was. He said, ‘Being homeless,’ ” Pelle said.

“You think of him by himself a lot, he could’ve gotten into trouble with drugs and alcohol,” said his sister, who is eight years older. “We did have a hard life, but he never lost his focus. He knew what he wanted to do.”

‘Who is that kid?’

Aguilar credits his mother and sister for raising him right. Amid it all, soccer was a constant companion.

His mother and sister persuaded a neighbor to coach a local team; the women pledged to shepherd players to the various fields. In spring 2009, when he was 15, Aguilar turned up at tryouts for the Capital Athletic Soccer Academy.

“Eighty-six kids and five coaches,” Pelle recalled. “We rolled the ball out and the reaction was, ‘Who is that kid?’ ”

Pelle, a former UCLA player and assistant coach, took Aguilar under his wing, coaching him at the club level for more than two years and helping to keep him on an academic path at Encina Preparatory High School. After a rough two years in the classroom, he had become a model student.

Given Aguilar’s background, a big university wasn’t going to work; he needed personal attention. He also need financial assistance. USF, a small private institution with a deep soccer tradition, fit the bill.

“Ever since I was little, I made my mom a promise,” he said. “I told her if by the time I was 18, soccer hadn’t paid off, I would stop playing and find a job. She never said, ‘You can’t play anymore because we are struggling.’ She always supported me. One of the happiest days of my life was when I showed her the papers with the [four-year] scholarship offer.”

In the West Coast Conference, Aguilar was a second-team all-league selection three times and first team as a senior. He graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average and a degree in finance.

After overstaying his visa, Aguilar gained legal status 2 1/2  years ago under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a government policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country before age 16 to avoid deportation and gain a renewable work permit.

His mother and siblings remain in Northern California. His brother, 10 years his senior, owns a restaurant; his mother helps run it. His sister is earning a degree.

Miguel is believed to be one of, if not the first, DACA recipient to sign a major league sports contract. Caught in the political squall over immigration reform, however, DACA residents do not have a pathway to naturalization.

His status has complicated travel with United. He carries a Mexican passport and special work permit. Returning from a match in Costa Rica early in the year, he got stuck in Miami immigration and customs for several hours. He missed the team’s connecting flight. Team administrator Francisco Tobar waited with him.

In the spring, Aguilar wasn’t able to travel to Vancouver for a regular season match because he was awaiting a work permit renewal. He did accompany the team to Toronto this summer and is cleared to visit Montreal this weekend.

With his life settled — he shares a Crystal City apartment with fellow rookies Luke Mishu and Travis Worra — Aguilar allows himself to reflect on the journey.

“I’ve been lucky and blessed,” he said. “I have friends who were in the same situation as me and aren’t as fortunate, both in Juarez and Sacramento.”

In three weeks, when he turns 22, he will have lived as long in the United States as Mexico.

Where do his allegiances lie?

“I still feel my roots are in Mexico, but it’s close,” he said, smiling. “My love for the sport, it all started in Mexico, but here is where I realized my dream.”