Southwest soccer families show international hospitality

Seven families host Mexican 15-year-olds and learn cultural differences aren't as big as they might seem

Soccer is truly an international sport as members of the Westside Real Cruz Oriete team found out firsthand the week of July 16.

The Minneapolis team of 18 15-year-old boys participated in the 20th annual USA Cup in Blaine. Westside was one of 15 Southwest teams in the tournament.

As the world's third-largest soccer tournament after two in Scandinavia, the USA Cup included 14,000 players on 982 teams from 19 foreign countries including South Korea, Brazil, Germany and Jamaica. Another 296 teams came from around America. Girls and boys played 2,500 70-minute games in that week's high humidity.

Adding to the international experience: seven Westside families hosted 15 members of Cruz Azul, a premiere Mexico City youth soccer team.

Westside parents did double-duty -- not only handling the six games their sons played in five consecutive days, but also housing, feeding and entertaining Cruz Azul players for a week and getting both squads to the games on time at the USA Cup fields 25 miles north of Minneapolis.

Lynnhurst resident Jenny Hedberg, whose son Brian plays center midfield for Westside, hosted Yair Hernandez and Luis Fernando. She split the responsibilities for shuttling the soccer players with her husband Tom, who also took most of his work off to meet the soccer responsibilities.

"They were so polite and wonderful to be around," said Jenny Hedberg of the Mexican kids. "There didn't seem like there was that much culture shock. The kids come from middle class families and basically shared the same values we do. I was very impressed at how organized and efficient they were. When you said 'We are leaving in 20 minutes,' they were always ready to go."

Among the activities that Southwest parents arranged: swimming excursions to Lake Harriet and the St. Louis Park water park; a visit to the Mall of America, several Aquatennial events and team barbecues. Since all the host families but one lived in Tangletown, East Harriet and Lynnhurst, it wasn't difficult to coordinate activities with other families.

Westside player Cullen McMahon -- who hosted three players Carlos Rivera, Enrique Espin and Admin Rodriguez, at his parents' Tangletown home -- spent the week playing soccer and basketball with his guests. Their search to transcend the language barrier was found in activities such as ping-pong and FIFA, a video soccer game.

Members of each team came together at McMahon's house to watch DVDs. During a double feature, they watched "X-Men 2" in Spanish with English subtitles, and later "Starsky and Hutch" in English with Spanish subtitles.

Parents reported the visitors' clothes were much like their kids', and children worldwide do not eat their vegetables. During the 30-minute car rides to and from Blaine, they listened to a Spanish-language radio station and sang along with the songs.

McMahon was impressed by the quality of his guests' soccer skills.

"Those guys are really good," said McMahon, who also plays for Southwest High. "They rarely touched the ball more than twice; they would get a pass and send it right to another one of their team members. Their speed and their ball-handling skills were much better than ours."

Westside's Spanish name, Real Cruz, was chosen in part to acknowledge the heart of the Westside offense, Mexico City natives Edgar Renteria and Ronely Fernandez. Both are Southwest High School athletes. Another factor: Westside Head Coach Patrick Cross's last name in Spanish is Cruz.

Fernandez, a Lyndale resident for the past eight years, acted as ambassador to the athletes visiting from his hometown. He met them at the airport and served as an interpreter for parents and teammates throughout the week.

The Cruz Azul players are professionals; the 15-year-olds are part of a farm system grooming young athletes to play on a major-league squad. Each year, 150 boys vie for a spot on the 25-man roster.

For Carlos Rivera, a Mexico City engineer who accompanied his son's team to Minneapolis, having his son (also named Carlos) play for Cruz Azul is both prestigious and important. "Mexico City is a troubled city, and it is good that my son plays sports to keep his mind focused on good things and out of trouble," Rivera said.

While the Westside team lost to Colegio de Mexico 2-1 in the semifinals to end their season, Cruz Azul went all the way. The Mexicans defeated Minnesota's top-ranked 15-year-old team from Plymouth in an overtime shootout to win the tournament. When the game ended, members of the Westside team watching from the sidelines ran onto the field to help their Mexican friends celebrate.

East Harriet resident Jim Myott, whose son Willie plays wing for Westside, hosted Carlos Alcala and Daniel Montes. "It was a nice cultural exchange," Myott said. "They exchanged team pins and team jerseys. Despite the fact that they came from different countries and spoke a different language, they found that they had a lot in common with each other."

Southwest Journal reporter Bob Gilbert is also a coach for the Westside soccer team.