By Michael Roberts
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"Once I realized that, I just thought, 'Man, we have to get these kids into some sort of program as soon as possible.'"
Gueddiche had been thinking about a similar program for some time. In fact, Daniel's soccer background was part of the reason she took him on. "I was looking for someone who really got soccer," she says. "This is what these kids know. And there's a lot of talk going on right now about integration: How do you integrate these kids, these refugees? Soccer is the international language. This is something that these kids know and something that will help with that process."
Daniel started with weekend pick-up games with the kids living at the two Grace apartment buildings. Initially they played four-on-four, but every week more kids would show up, kids ranging in age from seven to seventeen, and it became clear that the numbers were there for something bigger. But early practices were chaotic: Players wouldn't listen; they'd lie in the grass, pouting, when the ball wasn't passed to them; they'd talk smack, wrestle or run off at the sound of the ice cream truck.
"Discipline was a major issue," Daniel says, "just because they've never really had that structure. I'm not going to lie — it's still a bit of problem. But we're working on it, and they get better and better every practice."
They already had the skills. While the top players may have lacked the polish of American club-soccer players who'd been trained since they were toddlers, their footwork and ball control, as well as their knowledge of the game, was extraordinary. Most practices in the States feature a Beckham jersey here, a Ronaldo jersey there. Kids from the ACC regularly came to practice sporting jerseys of such off-the-beaten-track stars as Milan Baros, Joe Cole, Michael Essien, Lionel Messi — jerseys that they treated as their most prized possessions.
"They know all the players," Daniel says. "Especially the African players — Diouf, Drogba — they love those guys. And when you talk about talent, it's tricky, because these guys have a long way to go in terms of learning structure. But in terms of pure talent and knowing what to do when they get the ball, for thirteen-year-olds they are head and shoulders above anyone else their age I've seen."
About the time Daniel introduced his Saturday practices, he also joined a men's league with Chivas Denver, a primarily Hispanic soccer club. In addition to its adult teams, Chivas offers a youth program, and Daniel talked to the club's president about starting a team within Chivas made up entirely of the African kids he was coaching on the side. The club agreed to give it a shot, and Daniel began taking African players to Chivas youth-team practices, chaperoning them on bus rides to various practice fields, watching to see if the Africans might fit in. But they didn't.
"No knock on Chivas, because they gave us an opportunity, and we're really appreciative," Daniel says. "But the truth is, they are a really highly competitive youth soccer program, on par with the Colorado Rush and the Storm. I mean, we're talking some of the top talent in the state. Not that my guys don't have talent, but they're not refined. They've really never played on a team before; they've never done drills, done laps or wind sprints, stuff like that. There was just not enough time with a club like Chivas for our guys to develop like they needed to."
So while Daniel continued the Saturday practices, he looked around for another way he could get some of his boys together on a team. Touting soccer as a means of integration, as a way of doing better not just physically, but in all facets of life, he wrote grant proposals, talked to other sports organizations.
And then he got a call from Hugh Evans.
In the swank conference room of Aspect Energy, LLC, an oil exploration company located on the 29th floor of a downtown building, Hugh Evans's cell phone will not stop ringing. A computer and information-technology guru for Alex Cranberg's oil empire for the past seventeen years, Evans recently committed to a full-time gig running the Colorado Clash, Denver's newest soccer club, and the job keeps him busy. Coaches call constantly, seeking updates on field availability, the latest number of players on a certain squad, information regarding the transport of teams.
Although the Clash wasn't formed officially until November 2006, Evans has been envisioning the club for years. An avid West Ham fan raised in England, at sixteen he moved to Houston. There he eventually hooked up with Cranberg's fledgling oil-exploration company, which soon morphed into a multimillion-dollar success. While Evans's interest in oil grew during that time, his interest in soccer dwindled.
"Over here I kind of diffused on it," Evans says, "because it was like, 'This isn't the way that soccer is supposed to be played.' It was too sterile. In some senses, youth soccer was like babysitting. You would see parents drop off their kids in pajamas."
But once Evans's twin daughters began playing the sport, he was sucked back in. The girls played in Denver for a while, then moved on to the Westminster Soccer Club, a team run by a couple of Brits whom Evans appreciated for their "nice, clean" program that emphasized a high quality of coaching. And then one off-season three years ago, deciding that his girls' indoor, winter soccer lacked a certain flair, Evans signed up as coach and began recruiting inner-city Hispanic talent for the league.