photo courtesy of UConn Athletics
By FRANCO PANIZO
Before he was a college soccer player, and before he developed into one of the best playmakers in the nation for national power UConn, Carlos Alvarez was just a teenager with a life-changing decision to make.
Prior to joining the Huskies in 2009, Alvarez had a professional contract offered from Mexican club Tecos. Alvarez always wanted to play soccer for a living but he mulled the decision over with his family, and his father, who had played professionally in Mexico, advised him to pass on the opportunity and head to college instead.
Alvarez's father pointed to the uncertainty that can come with being a professional athlete and the need to have a back-up plan for life just in case the often-overlooked hardships of playing soccer reared their ugly heads. It did not take much convincing for the young Alvarez to understand. He only had to look at his older brother as a prime example of what his father was talking about.
"My brother turned pro in Mexico (at 17-years-old) and then he just stopped playing," Alvarez told SBI. "He didn't want to play soccer no more. He said he was done and overwhelmed. He just wanted to take a break.
"I see my brother, he's married and he doesn't have kids, but at the end of the day he just has a regular job and I don't want that for my life. I want to play and have a degree and then if anything after I can use my degree that could be useful."
Aside from preparing himself in case soccer does not pan out post-college, Alvarez also wanted to become the first member of his family to obtain a college degree at an American university. The Los Angeles-born forward is well on his way to accomplishing that goal, as he is currently senior at UConn majoring in Spanish with a minor in Psychology.
Still, the 21-year-old Alvarez hopes of playing professional soccer one day and he seems as safe a bet as there is to fulfilling that dream. Alvarez scored three goals and had 11 assists in a standout freshman year in 2009 and he followed that up with a four-goal, 14-assist season as a sophomore. His numbers dipped a bit as a junior, with only six goals and eight assists in 2011, but he was and is still a player that clubs, including the New York Red Bulls, have been keeping tabs on.
"I'm open to anything," said Alvarez in terms of where he would like to play after his senior season. "Of course I want to stay local and stay near my family but whatever team takes me or wherever I go, I just want to go and take care of business and just work hard for the new team, the new jersey I'm going to play for."
While the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Alvarez is not shy about sharing his ambition to turn pro, he emphasizes repeatedly how focused he is on helping UConn make a deep run at the NCAA title. He is a team captain after all, and he knows he has to shoulder a large chunk of the responsibility and not let other things distract him from the task at hand, especially if he is to help the Huskies overcome their England-like penalty kick curse (UConn has been eliminated each of his three years there via penalty shootouts).
"If (teams) call my regular cell phone, I honestly don't pick up," said Alvarez. "I just leave it alone, because when I start I just focus on season and work as a team. That's all, I'm just thinking forward, helping my teammates, and yes, in the future I do think every hard work will pay off and hopefully everything happens."
Alvarez will be relied upon to do more than just help his teammates in his senior season. In addition to helping the younger players learn the ropes of playing soccer at the collegiate level, Alvarez is being asked to produce on the field even with the weight of expectations upon him.
"We expect him to have a very good year," said Huskies head coach Ray Reid. "He's our quarterback, he makes the whole thing go, we're excited about the opportunity to see what he can do."
Reid believes Alvarez will have no problem transitioning his game to MLS if that is where he winds up in 2013, even in light of the fact that MLS clubs typically prefer more imposing or physical players. Reid, however, is not so sure as to which national team his young playmaker will suit up for in the future if he develops into an international-caliber player.
Neither is Alvarez.
He has represented both the United States and Mexico at the youth level, though he has not played for either in recent years. He first took part in a U.S. Under-20 men's national team camp in August 2008 before playing for Mexico's U-20 team in March 2009, and while he there are pros and cons to each, he does not prefer one over the other.
"It's been a nice thing because both teams are different. They both have different atmospheres and have different fans," said Alvarez. "I want to represent my country the U.S. because I was born here, I was born in LA. It was a nice thing and when they called me I was 16 and playing with the U-20s. It was a nice experience. I had Thomas Rongen as a head coach and he gave me an opportunity to play and the camp is something that I had never experienced.
"Then the Mexican team gave me a chance, too. The soccer the Mexicans play, it's the soccer I usually play. Just (passing) a lot, not a lot of physical, but at the end of the day I like both soccer teams, I watch both of them on TV because I do come from Mexican parents and no matter what Mexican blood runs in my veins. I'm proud of being both. I'm proud of being Mexican-American."
Alvarez recently sat down with some UConn teammates to take in the U.S. men's national team's historic 1-0 win at Estadio Azteca, and he was heckled after El Tri's defeat. Alvarez, who has played with U.S. assistant head coach Martin Vasquez and his son in weekend leagues back in Los Angeles and counts them as good friends, says he was unphased by the playful jabs because, as of right now, he is not playing for either.
"I'll represent anyone that calls me," said Alvarez. "I'll be happy to represent both countries. Whoever wants to call me…I'm willing to do that."
Choosing a national team isn't something he will have to worry about in the immediate future. Right now, Alvarez is focused on his senior year and he is poised for a big year with UConn. Should he deliver the goods and help the Huskies make a deep run, he will boost his chances of becoming the third member of his immediate family to play soccer professionally, and the first to do so with a college degree to his name.