It is hard to find a family that lives and breathes football as much as that of Carlos Álvarez and his wife, Renae Cuéllar. Both play professionally: Álvarez with Landon Donovan’s newly formed San Diego Loyal, in the United Soccer League, the tier below MLS, and Cuéllar for Tijuana in the thriving Mexican top flight and for Mexico.
But the football roots run deeper. Álvarez’s father, who played in the Mexican second division, made sure there was always a football at the feet of Carlos and his five other children. By the age of four Álvarez was “playing-playing, like 11 v 11”. He became the first member of his family to graduate from university, then was selected as the second overall pick in the SuperDraft, by Chivas USA, in 2013.
His elder brother is a top coach and one of his three younger brothers, the 17-year-old Efraín, was last year described by his former LA Galaxy teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic as “by far the biggest talent in the MLS”.
They needed sport in their pocket of east LA. “It’s really rare when people come out of my neighbourhood,” Álvarez says. “My parents made sure I played sports and focused on school; that’s how they kept me away from gangs, drugs, prostitution, all the things around my neighbourhood.”
While his parents worked from 4am to 1.30pm cutting chicken off the bone that would go to restaurants such as KFC and Popeyes, Álvarez and his siblings worked at “staying out of trouble so they wouldn’t be in trouble. Now they have papers, now they’re full American citizens, but back then they were immigrants. We saw their sacrifices.”
A determination to graduate from the University of Connecticut meant the now 29-year-old turned down the opportunity to join MLS sooner.
Cuéllar’s story is not dissimilar. Unlike many young girls, she had a female football role model close to home. “I started playing when I was six and the reason was because my dad’s youngest sister played,” the 29-year-old says. “She went on to play collegiately and I grew up watching her.
“My dad is a speed and strength trainer, so he would train her and her college teammates on the side to help. So me, at six years old, all I wanted to do was train with my aunt and train with her teammates and be just like her.”
Eventually it switched, and her father and aunt were coaching her, pushing her to go further than they were able to. “My parents had me when they were teenagers, so obviously they just wanted better for me.”
As Álvarez played his way through the MLS and USL, Cuéllar hopped from country to country, playing in the NWSL (scoring the first goal in NWSL history for Kansas City), then in South Korea, Sweden, Germany, Israel and Iceland. Just under two years ago, when she joined Kiryat Gat in Israel, she had to leave Álvarez and their young son, who, fittingly, kicks a ball in the background of our Zoom chat.
“He was about a year and four months old and I had to leave him because I had to go to pre-season while their visas got approved. So Carlos was in his season full-time while taking care of a baby by himself.”
Having Romeo has meant making sacrifices. First, Cuéllar would cry over the unknown: whether she would be able to play again. Then she had to transition from always pressurising herself to be the best to accepting that in this new role, a mother, she would not be perfect. And there were the physical demands of training and breastfeeding, and handling a shift of focus.
“I was not used to not being focused in practice. I would catch myself in moments where I was dribbling or I had just finished shooting and I was jogging back and I’m wondering if Romeo is OK.”
There are huge benefits in having a spouse who understands your industry, Cuéllar says. “I enjoy being with somebody that can train with me, somebody that tests me and pushes my buttons when it comes to the game. Once you become a mother there are so many people in the world that may not agree with you playing. I get a lot of: ‘You should be home with your family.’ That kind of stuff. But I don’t have to explain it to him. I want to train twice today? I want to run? He says: ‘OK, you go run and I’ll be with Romeo.’”
Finally, after years of juggling and travel, the couple play near each other. Their clubs are roughly 32km apart, separated by the Mexico-US border.
“When it was first created,” says Cuéllar of the Mexican women’s league, “I was a little bit bitter about it because Mexican-Americans were not allowed to play in it. I have dual citizenship, but I wasn’t born there. I played for the national team, but I couldn’t play there. I always kept track. I saw that they had great crowds. Now being a part of it is very special to me.
“It’s a great league. I think it’s grown immensely and I hope that it continues to grow for the future of Mexican women’s soccer. There’s a lot of good things behind it, but there also needs to be a lot of growth and a lot more support. I come from humble beginnings, a lot of the girls do, and I think this is a great opportunity for them to have a better life, to help their families and to see that they can achieve very, very big things no matter where they’ve come from or what their circumstances are.”
When Álvarez was told by his agent he had the option of joining SD Loyal it was a no-brainer. “I had a lot of opportunities to go to different places, but just to be around my family, be around my wife, just to see her play, to be around my kid, it meant everything to me. Sometimes you make sacrifices to be next to each other.
“Then, getting to be part of a project that Landon Donovan started, a player that I looked up to too, that I played against, that, if you talk about American soccer, you’re talking about Landon Donovan, was huge for me.”
Do they notice the differences between men’s and women’s football? “Their are huge differences but the similarity is that both come with a lot of sacrifice and dedication,” says Álvarez.
“There obviously are differences,” adds Cuéllar. “The structures of professional teams, the salaries, the coaches, the coaching staff. I take so much pride in being a woman and being a professional athlete and being able to compete at the level I do. Now I’m a mother to a son, obviously I will never look at it and think they’re getting more than they deserve, you know? I see how hard Carlos works.
“But I want to strive for better every single day because I hope that one day when we have more kids, a daughter, there are less differences between the men’s and the women’s game.”