A chance at soccer south of the border

The first time Natalie Vinti took the field with Mexico's national soccer team, her arms were covered with more ink than those of an NBA point guard.

Only Vinti's Magic Marker tattoos weren't paeans to friends, family or the old neighborhood. They were one-word commands in Spanish such as fuera (out) and sola (alone), a kind of bare-skin Berlitz to help her communicate with teammates.

"I can't formulate the words fast enough in my head in Spanish," said Vinti, whose understanding of the language at the time went only slightly beyond the menu at Taco Bell. "When they ask me a question, I'd just respond in English."

A San Diego native, Vinti was recruited to play for Mexico. In fact, when Mexico stunned the U.S. in a World Cup qualifying match two months ago in Cancun, a quarter of the players on its 20-woman roster were Americans.

Most of them, like Vinti, struggle to speak Spanish, can't remember the words to the national anthem and had never visited Mexico City before making the team. The arrangement, however, has been beneficial for both sides.

For women's soccer in Mexico, which struggled to find funding and acceptance in a society where many still see sports as a male domain, the U.S.-trained players brought a level of skill and discipline that was rare south of the border.

For the U.S.-born players, Mexico's soccer program offered an opportunity to prolong their careers beyond college, as well as a chance to play in the Olympics and this summer's World Cup in Germany — objectives none of them were likely to achieve if they had stayed home.

"We don't see them as Americans," said Mexico's Coach Leo Cuellar. "They're Mexican."

Well, not really. But at least one of their parents is. That means the players qualify for dual citizenship, and for FIFA, soccer's international governing body, that's enough to qualify them to play for Mexico.

"They feel 100% part of our culture," Cuellar said. "They don't feel rejected. They feel at home."

Except when it comes time to sing the national anthem.

Veronica Perez, a 22-year-old from San Mateo, Calif., who scored the winning goal in Mexico's 2-1 win over the U.S., had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before that game.

Alina Garciamendez, a 19-year-old who started for Stanford University in the last two NCAA championship matches, spent countless hours listening to the Mexican anthem on her iPod, memorizing the words.

Vinti, 23, still resorts to the old strategy, inking the difficult parts of the song on her hand.

"There was one line I could not remember," she said. "So I had one of my friends write it on my left hand so that if the [TV] camera came to me during that time, I would just sing along."

It was either that or retirement. And not just for Vinti.

With women's professional soccer struggling to gain a foothold in the U.S. in the post- Mia Hamm era, the American national team was one of the few places left for players who wanted to compete after college. And though Perez, Garciamendez, Vinti and her former University of San Diego teammate, 20-year-old junior Natalie Garcia, had all participated in development camps in the U.S., none seemed to have a future with the national team.

So when they were offered a job on the other side of the border, they took it.

For their troubles, the U.S. imports, who have no NCAA eligibility left, get paid a stipend of at least 300 pesos — less than 25 dollars — for every day they spend with the team, either in camp or at a match.

"For many of us, this has been our whole lives. I've been playing since I was 4 years old," Vinti said. "And watching it as a young child — watching the U.S. play in the World Cup and hoping one day that I could reach that goal. To say that I'm doing that now is something that I will never forget."

Mexico isn't the only country that has poached talent from the U.S. About 20 nations — including World Cup qualifiers England, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil — have stocked their rosters with Americans who qualify for dual citizenship.

It happens in other sports as well. The Clippers Chris Kaman, who was born in Michigan, became a dual citizen to compete for Germany in international play, for example, while WNBA star Becky Hammon, a South Dakota native, played for Russia in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Even the U.S. has benefitted from athletes willing to change allegiances for a sweat suit — national record-holders Bernard Lagat (1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters) and Khalid Khannouchi (marathon) were born in Kenya and Morocco, respectively, but ran for the U.S. after becoming naturalized citizens.

Mexico, however, has been more ambitious than most when it comes to recruiting, especially in the U.S. Last spring, the Mexican government staged a sports festival at the Home Depot Center in Carson where nearly 500 teenagers competed in seven sports, including women's soccer, as part of an effort to identify candidates for Mexico's national teams.

Cuellar himself is a dual national who played professionally in San Diego and San Jose before coaching at San Diego's U.S. International University and Cal State Los Angeles. In building Mexico into a women's soccer power, he has gotten help from a network of college coaches including USC's Ali Khosroshahin, who recommended Perez and former Cal State Fullerton All-American Marlene Sandoval; and Ada Greenwood of the University of San Diego, who recommended Vinti and Garcia.

"The way the level of competition is going, you just look for the best talent," Cuellar said. "It happens that in the states there are millions of Mexicans. And it happens that more and more of the girls like to play this sport."

Mexico has relied heavily on U.S. players in Cuellar's dozen years as the women's coach. In its only other World Cup appearance, in 1999, the Mexican roster had 12 Americans and its best player was co-captain Laurie Hill, then 29, from Los Angeles.

Mexico's two junior teams each had nine Americans on their rosters last summer, with the under-20 team reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in its division behind a spectacular goal by Garciamendez.

That reliance on Americans is beginning to wane, however. The number of U.S.-born players on the senior national team has been cut by more than half in the last decade.

There are a number of reasons for the change. Mexico has made huge strides in women's sports in recent years — three of its four medal winners at the Beijing Olympics were women — and the inclusion of U.S. players has sometimes had negative effects.

"We lost the balance in the group. We lost the stability because there were too many," Cuellar said, speaking of Mexico's two junior teams. "We had the case of two or three [girls] who didn't speak a word of Spanish. And there was no interest at all in trying to learn."

The five Californians on the World Cup team say they are making an effort to fit in.

Garciamendez's Spanish has improved enough that she can now carry on a conversation and understand her coaches and teammates, though she apologizes for "an American accent."

Vinti has fallen in love with Mexican food, especially the tacos sold by street vendors; Garcia has filled her iPod with Spanish-language music. Perez, however, may be the most calculating of the five. After her 16-year-old sister, Amanda, was asked to play for Mexico's under-17 team last summer, Perez began planning for the day both girls would wear the green and white of Mexico in a World Cup match.

"We're going to be the first, probably, sister combo to ever play in a World Cup," she said. "We have to speak Spanish fluently in, like, a year because, if we're going to be famous, they're going to want to do some stories on us and we have to communicate with the Mexican press."

Ask Cuellar about the day his Americans became Mexican, though, and he'll point to the wild celebration following his team's stunning upset of the U.S. in November, Mexico's first win over the U.S. in 26 matches.

"Natalie Garcia is every day at the table," he said, "at every meal, trying to learn something different in Spanish. I will never forget when the game ended and we were out on the field, she shouted, 'Lo hicimos! Lo hicimos!' ('We did it! We did it!')."

Vinti, facing Garcia across a table on the deck of the University of San Diego pool, hasn't had that breakthrough moment yet. Although her Spanish is improving, thanks to her 85-year-old grandmother who rarely speaks to her in English now, Vinti still fakes laryngitis when asked something that requires a complicated response and teammates continue to giggle at her accent.

But her arms are mostly bare now when she takes the field. And the experience, she admits, has done more than extend her soccer career or her language skills. It has also expanded her perspective and given her family something to share.

"They're ecstatic. They tell everyone about my soccer," Vinti said. "It did bring a sense of heritage."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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