GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Most American fans watched in horror on Wednesday night as Santos Laguna ran roughshod over the Seattle Sounders in CONCACAF Champions League play. But inside the Estadio Corona, three young Americans watched in awe as they dreamed of donning the green-and-white stripes on just such an occasion.
Meet Santos' trio of American U-20s – Daniel Cuevas, Benji Joya and Jesus Guzman – who have moved down to Torreón from California over the past 12 months to begin their professional careers with los Guerreros.
All three are currently playing with Santos’ Under-20 team, but are regularly invited to train with the first team.
Name: Daniel Cuevas
Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.
Previous club: PAC Atlas
In his own words: “I would say I’m very fast, I have a powerful shot and I’m a forward … I love to score.”
Name: Hector Benjamin “Benji” Joya
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Position: Attacking mid/right wing
Previous club: De Anza Force Soccer Club
In their own words: “I like getting the ball a lot and I think I create a lot of opportunities for goals. I like [taking on players] a lot too.”
Name: Jesus “Chuy” Guzman
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Previous club: San Jose Earthquakes
In his own words: “I’m physically not that big, but I’m more of a flexible shot-stopper.”
All three also have the same agent/manager in ex-pro Maximiliano Roditis, who spotted them playing for different teams in Northern California and used his network of contracts to arrange trials in Torreón.
“They have the talent, the personality and they want to play,” explained Roditis, who played in Mexico, Argentina and Europe, in a recent phone conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “I see here they have a really good residency; they train them well and take care of the players.”
Added goalkeeper Guzman: “I thought it was an opportunity that I couldn’t let pass by because of the opportunities we’re going to gain over here and the environment.”
Although college scholarships were on the table for the trio and Guzman was training with the San Jose Earthquakes' first team, financial considerations played a part in their decision to move down south.
“I got scholarship offers, but I didn’t want to go to school and play college soccer," said Cuevas, "I wanted to start getting paid as soon as possible so I could help my family out."
Joya admits the move south was difficult at first, but says he and his compatriots have adapted to life in Mexico, the result of being raised in households led by Mexican parents and speaking fluent Spanish.
Still, there have been some surprises.
“When we first came, it was difficult because of the violence here," said Joya, "but where we live in the TSM [Santos' training complex], it is very safe and very comfortable."
The Northern Californians say they are happy with how things have gone so far down south, but none more so than Guzman, who is training alongside the man that inadvertently shaped his present.
“I used to watch a lot of Oswaldo [Sánchez], and he actually inspired me to start goalkeeping,” enthused Guzman. “It’s funny because now I actually get to train with him; it’s a dream come true.”
San Jose native Guzman tries to get all the bits of advice he can off the World Cup veteran, but all three are reaping the rewards of rubbing shoulders with Santos Laguna’s top talents.
Joya, an attacking midfielder and right winger, says he learns most from Colombian international Darwin Quintero, while Herculez Gomez, who also came to Mexico as a teenager to try his luck, has become a bit of a sounding board for the young dual-passport holders as they embark on the early stages of their pro careers.
“He’s a great person to speak to for advice,” said Joya. “I ask him a lot of questions. He tells me to be patient, give my all, be confident and show what I have.”
Making the move has been no obstacle to the trio playing for the US national team, with each of them called up by Tab Ramos for last month’s US Under-20 camp and hoping to make the U-20 World Cup in Turkey next year.
“I like the environment a lot, it’s very fast-paced and everybody gets along well,” explained Cuevas. “Coach Tab makes it really fun.”
The trio already has overseas experience, traveling last month to the LXIV Copa Viareggio in Italy, where Santos Laguna’s Under-20 side defeated a Roma youth side 2-0 before losing to Paraguay’s Nacional.
So far, there has been no talk from Santos about first-team opportunities, but regular training sessions with the big boys augurs well for another talented bunch of American youngsters to keep an eye on south of the Rio Grande.