MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former goleador and league nomad Raúl Díaz Arce.
Where He Was Then
Widely regarded as one of the best forwards in El Salvador due to his work ethic and goal-scoring instincts, Raúl Díaz Arce landed at D.C. United in MLS’ inaugural 1996 campaign eager to prove he could make it abroad, too.
And it seemed like he couldn’t miss the net if he tried. In his first season at D.C., Díaz Arce finished as Golden Boot runner-up in with 23 goals and added another 15 in 1997, leading the club to back-to-back MLS Cup titles, the 1996 US Open Cup and the 1997 Supporters’ Shield.
Despite moving around the league five more times after those two seasons – New England (1998), San Jose (1999), Tampa Bay (1999-2000), D.C. United (2000-01) and Colorado (2001) – Díaz Arce went on to score another 44 goals in 100 regular-season games. His 82 career goals in MLS rank him 11th all-time in league history.
Where He Is Now
It was 2004 and a 34-year-old Raúl Díaz Arce had just failed to reach an agreement with USL side Puerto Rico Islanders to play with them for a second season. But he didn’t want his career to end there. He still felt he could help an MLS team.
“I wanted to be back in MLS, I wanted to show I could still play,” recalls Díaz Arce, who played for USL A-League club Charleston Battery in 2002 and ’03 and Salvadoran giants CD Águila in ‘02. “I was confident I could play another two or three years.”
With no teams calling for his services, Díaz Arce picked up the phone himself and rang his friends in the coaching ranks throughout MLS, asking if they could help him out. Finally, one of them gave him a ray of hope.
“I called Bruce Arena, who was coaching the US national team at the time, to see if he could help me keep playing,” Díaz Arce says. “Bruce is someone I’ve always had respect for and I didn’t want to bother him, but being in the situation I was in, I found myself forced to.
“If I’m not mistaken, his father had unfortunately passed away around that time. A few days went by and I thought he had forgotten about me, but he called me back and said there was an opportunity for me.”
The only catch: The said opportunity was as an assistant coach on the US U-17 staff, and accepting it would likely put an end to the Salvadoran striker’s playing days.
Díaz Arce felt he still had plenty of miles left on his odometer. To keep on playing meant he and his family – at the time, his wife, Maria, daughter Angel and son Raúl – would have to pack their bags yet again and move out to a new city, a skill they had picked up through the striker’s storied yet nomadic 16-year career. (In six full seasons in MLS, the Salvadoran hit man played for five different teams, and 10 in total.)
Taking the job with US Soccer and serving under then US U-17 coach John Hackworth at the Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., would mean he and his family could finally settle down in one place. After all, the only hint of sprouting roots they had was a house in Tampa, which Díaz Arce had purchased when he played for the Mutiny.
“In the end, I chose to accept the position,” says Díaz Arce who, while playing, had attained all the necessary coaching licenses. “I didn’t want to keep moving because my family had no stability. My children couldn’t lead a normal life, make friends. Taking the position as assistant coach with the US U-17s would at least give my family a bit of stability, even though it meant saying farewell as a player.
“Of course it hurt,” he says about hanging up the boots, “but I did it for my family. I didn’t want to continue the adventure of moving with my family from place to another and then two or three months later, move again. What comforted me is that I would still be involved in soccer, just from a different perspective.”
For nearly five years, Díaz Arce made the approximately 40-minute drive from his house to the IMG Academy, serving as an assistant coach on the US U-17 team and later as a scout and technical advisor (pictured above, right with Keith Faulk). Throughout his time there, he helped coach through two FIFA U-17 World Cup cycles and assisted in the development of players such as Jozy Altidore, Brek Shea and defender Sheanon Williams, among others.
In July 2009, Díaz Arce was on the move again, this time to Chicago to take over as academy director of the Chicago Magic Soccer Club. He and his family, however, quickly found out that winters in the Windy City aren’t kind, especially to Central Americans.
“It was a great experience – I had never worked at the youth level with a club – but my family, as Salvadorans, just couldn’t adapt to the cold climate,” Díaz Arce says. “So after two years there, I decided to find a place where my family wouldn’t suffer through the cold, where they would be more comfortable.”
The search for warmth took him and his family to Atlanta, where he took over as boys’ director of coaching for the Atlanta Fire United Soccer Association in May of last year (pictured right).
Díaz Arce feels qualified enough and hopes to one day have the chance to coach at the pro level, but for now, he’s having fun cultivating a new crop of young American talent.
“I feel glad doing this, being a part of developing players that can one day make a change in soccer,” he says. “You always hope that a group of players you work with day after day achieves something special. That’s what gives me satisfaction as a coach, when you can say, ‘I helped develop that kid.’"
“Soccer in the US has improved tremendously,” he adds, “and it’s gaining prestige and respect internationally. It’s getting better each year, and I believe that in a few more years, MLS will be one of the top leagues in the world.”
While developing the next batch of American soccer players keeps him busy at his day job, developing the next batch of Díazes keeps him busy at home. Currently, his eldest daughter, Angel, is a 21-year-old student attending college for fashion design. His son, Raúl, is a 16-year-old high school student who plays midfielder and central defender for the Atlanta Fire’s U-17 team and dreams of one day following in his father’s footsteps.
And then comes three-year-old Gabriela who, despite being the “light of the home,” loves wreaking havoc around the house – much like her dad used to terrorize opposing defenses.
Does that mean Atlanta is the place where the Díaz family will finally stay put, let those roots finally take a solid hold? Only time will tell. But for now, Atlanta gets an A+.
“My family is happy where we’re at,” says Díaz Arce.
What They Said
“Raúl is a born goal-scorer. He was always in the right place at the right time. He was a great professional – one of the best to emerge from our country. His dedication, discipline and talent were superb. To talk about Raúl is to talk about a thoroughbred striker. He is, perhaps, one of the last true center forwards produced by El Salvador.”
– Mauricio Cienfuegos, Díaz Arce’s countryman and former CD Luis Ángel Firpo and El Salvador teammate
WATCH: Díaz Arce scores 56 goals over first three seasons