WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – September 24, 2008. It’s a day José Francisco Torres never forgets.
Torres sat at home and watched Mexico suffer a 1-0 loss to Chile in Los Angeles – a game he said he should have been playing – not witnessing on TV. So when the referee’s whistle ended the game, it also brought closure to the toughest decision of his soccer career.
From that day, Torres’ goal was to play in the World Cup for the red, white and blue of the United States, not the red, white and green of Mexico.
“They didn’t call me in [from Mexico], and I was hoping to be called in,” the 22-year-old midfielder told CNNSI.com. “Fortunately, U.S. coach Bob Bradley had been watching me since I’d been here [with Pachuca]. He took the chance and called me in and I got to play with the U.S. two games. I’m happy. I think I did a good job and now I’ve got to keep working.”
Torres, who was born in Longview, Texas, to an American mother and Mexican father, has dual nationality, making him eligible to play for either country.
But once he made a choice, there was no turning back. Any player who enters an international, non-exhibition game for one country’s senior national team is prohibited for ever playing for any other nation’s senior squad, according to FIFA, the sport’s governing body.
That’s why the decision was so difficult for Torres. Sure, he was born in the United States, but Mexico was the first to offer him a chance at his dream of playing professional soccer.
Torres was discovered by scouts for Pachuca of the Primera División of Mexico at the age of 15, who gave him the opportunity to enter the team’s youth academy, which he could use as a springboard toward landing a professional contract.
But he also could stay in the United States and use his skills to try to earn a college scholarship, where he could get an education – on and off the field.
Torres decided to leave his family and attend the prestigious academy of the Tuzos in Mexico.
Initially, it appeared he made the right decision. He starred for the Pachuca youth team from 2003 to 2006. Two years later, his dream became reality, as he was named the starting center midfielder for the Pachuca senior team. He’s been the catalyst for the attack, using his deft passes to get the ball to the team’s forwards.
He’s scored three goals in 81 games, in addition to making one of the biggest plays in team history. His penalty kick clinched the Interliga title in 2009, securing a berth in Copa Libertadores.
Torres, who is left-footed, said his quick rise to stardom put him on the fast track to be promoted to the senior national team, where he would compete in the game’s biggest tournaments.
But the United States also wanted him – so much they offered him a spot on its Under-23 team headed to the 2008 Olympics.
His answer? Thanks, but no thanks.
Torres’ shunning of the U.S. would show his commitment to Mexico, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Then-Mexico Coach Sven-Göran Eriksson didn’t ask Torres to join El Tri – the national team’s nickname – for its match against Chile later that year.
“It sent a message that surprised me a little bit,” Torres told The New York Times. “I had been working hard, and I thought I was in his plans. I’m glad that the U.S. kept thinking about me and watching me.”
But then Torres’ phone rang.
It was Bradley, who had a deal Torres couldn’t refuse.
Bradley had a spot for Torres on his roster for two World Cup qualifiers, essentially giving Torres a chance to prove he was good enough to be considered for a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster.
Torres debuted in the 68th minute against Cuba on Oct. 11, 2008. Four days later, he made his first start against Trinidad and Tobago.
Last month, he was named to the United States 23-man roster that will compete in South Africa for the country’s first World Cup title.
“I think he comes on and finds a good rhythm,” midfielder Landon Donovan told reporters after a 2-1 win over Turkey on May 29. “He is able to connect things at a quick tempo and at the same time then allow me to be a little bit more mobile, a little more dynamic and find some spots forward.”
The United States, a 50-to-1 long shot to win it all and ranked 14th by FIFA, opens Group C play against eighth-ranked England on June 12 before facing 25th-ranked Slovenia on June 18 and 30th-ranked Algeria on June 23.
Torres, however, isn’t the only American with dual nationality who had to make a tough choice about the country he represents. Yanks midfielder Benny Feilhaber was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and defender Edgar Castillo, a native of Las Cruces, N.M., was part of El Tri before his bid to make the U.S. team failed.
“They killed me here in the Mexican press,” Castillo told ESPN.com. “It was a little exaggerated; they were very mad. When you have two nationalities, you have two. You love the two countries, but you have to see in soccer terms where you fit in.”