Postcard from Mexico: Chávarri has an American dream

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – If the name Diego Chávarri doesn’t move the needle for you, that’s not a surprise. This past spring, a handful of reports in the American press uncovered the fact that a young, up-and-coming winger down in Peru actually had a US passport.

Six months later, Chávarri is still mostly an unknown in US soccer circles. But the New York-born 22-year-old is trying to change all that – and perhaps make a surprising run at making the US Olympic team next summer.

Back in April, when Yanks Abroad and The New York Times “discovered” Chávarri, the youngster was riding a mini-wave of success. He had broken into the first team of Peruvian power Sporting Cristal and had just scored a spectacular solo goal against archrivals Alianza Lima, taking the ball in his own half and running through the defense to score. According to local reports, Dutch Eredivisie club Vitesse were showing interest in him.

The obvious questions were raised: Was he open to playing for the United States? Does he speak English? Is he any good?

Since then, there has been little information about Chávarri in the English-language press, partly because he has endured a frustrating, injury-filled last six months. Two ankle injuries since March, coupled with a quadriceps problem on top of that, have curtailed his playing time to just a handful of games since the stories first appeared.

Now on the verge of the first team again after recovering from his most recent ankle knock, Chávarri is aware that he has to take things step by step.

“They put a cast on me and everything, but I’m training now and I’ve been able to play with the reserves,” Chávarri told MLSsoccer.com by phone this week from Lima, “so I’m waiting to see if I’ll be able to return [for Sunday’s match].”

Chávarri’s story is an interesting one of vague American dreams coupled with a traditional South American soccer background. Born in the Big Apple while his parents were visiting family, he was whisked back to Peru as a one-month-old, as he tells it.

From a “normal” family that was neither rich nor poor, his soccer career started when he joined local Lima team AELU at age eight. As a versatile player who can occupy either wing or play central midfield, his play began to impress.

When his boyhood club Sporting Cristal, one of Peru’s “big three,” came knocking in April 2008, it didn’t take much persuading for him to join.

Within a year, he had made his first-team debut, becoming – to the best of anyone’s knowledge – the first American to play professionally in Peru. A year later, he was an established first-teamer at Sporting.

Despite the setbacks since then, Chávarri remains just as ambitious as he was before his injuries.

“I’d love to play in the Olympics, like anybody else,” he said.

Chávarri’s international experience thus far has been limited to a preliminary training camp for Peru leading into the 2009 South American Under-20 Championship, but says he hasn’t heard from the Peruvian federation recently.

The youngster says he would not turn down another chance to play for the nation where he grew up, but admits a chance to play for his birth nation, should it come along, would be an interesting option and one he’d love to consider.

“If things go well for me and the United States national team calls me, I will welcome it,” said Chávarri. “But I haven’t had any contact.”

The US are, of course, in a time of transition under Jurgen Klinsmann. University of Akron coach Caleb Porter will take over the US Olympic team, and the agenda of “fresh ideas” in the halls of the US Soccer Federation would seem to favor the odds for an outsider like Chávarri.

And the 22-year-old is intrigued. Although he doesn’t get much opportunity to watch Major League Soccer, he tries to watch games online and is impressed with the quality and the rise of the league.

“I would love to [play in MLS],” he noted. “Why not?”

Chávarri talks of his native land with enthusiasm and frequently heads north to the US whenever he gets a break from games to visit family and travel.

“I really like it a lot,” said Chávarri, who adds that he speaks and understands English without much problem. “I always go whenever I can; when I have vacations, I like to travel there. I’ve been to New York, Colorado and Orlando.”

Back in Peru, though, Chávarri’s career is at a vital juncture. If he can recapture the form of six months ago, the rewards will be huge. A move to a better-paying, higher-quality league beckons and he has stated in the Peruvian press that, while he feels a strong affinity for Sporting, a move abroad is something to which he would be open.

By next summer, he hopes, perhaps you’ll know his name.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup