AMSTERDAM – One of a select group of US players that have filed a FIFA switch to another CONCACAF country, FC Paços de Ferreira midfielder Arturo Alvarez will be on pins and needles on Friday.
The Houston native won't be with his El Salvador teammates, as usual, when they host Group B foes Costa Rica in their key game of the region's World Cup qualifying third round. Alvarez was on the provisional squad list, but his return from a preseason abductor injury has not come fast enough to participate in this high-stakes match.
Instead, he'll be forced to watch nervously from Portugal as they attempt to post an essential win over the visiting Ticos. Three points on Friday would mean El Salvador are through to the decisive Hexagonal, just ahead of the horror-house visit to Mexico on the round's closing day.
"It's in our own hands," Alvarez told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Paços de Ferreira, located near Porto in northern Portugal. "It's going to be a tough game, Costa Rica's a really good team. But I think the advantage we have is that we're playing at home."
Of course, for him, it would actually be considered a home-away-from-home game. Alvarez has logged 20 El Salvador caps since switching his international allegiance to his parents' native land back in 2009. Having come up through the US youth ranks, he admits the decision to make a change did not come lightly.
"It was tough," he said. "I grew up with US Soccer. I just didn't see myself in the plans. I think it took me a few months to come up with that decision."
Three years later and deep into a World Cup qualifying chase, the 27-year-old has no regrets.
"I knew once I made that decision, there's no turning back," he stated. "I'm happy with my decision. It's been a good experience."
The same can be said for his move to the Portuguese top flight after nine seasons in MLS with the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Alvarez reports that the transition has gone swimmingly for the most part.
There were initial struggles with the new language, but he's found ways to make it work in training, when listening is the primary task.
"I've been picking [Portuguese] up with teammates and friends I've made here," said Alvarez. I can understand it a lot more than I can speak it. Other than that, things are pretty similar."
The other important difference has come with the highly tactical nature of Portuguese top-flight play. Alvarez concedes that this aspect was among his weaknesses back in the States, but says that's changing.
"It's something that's good for me and I plan to learn some things," he stated. "Now that I've been here a few months, some areas of my game have improved."
"I'm enjoying myself here," declared Alvarez. “It's a good experience and I'm looking forward to what lies ahead."All in all, you could say the left-footed playmaker is reaping the benefits of not one, but two of his recent big decisions.
With the injury healed, the next target is his first assignment under new manager Paulo Fonseca.
"It's been [three] weeks since I had full training," Alvarez said. "I'm 100 percent. I'm ready to play."
Injured three days before the season opener, he is trying to play repo man with his flank job from the spring. Alvarez bagged two goals in nine outings (only three of them starts) after arriving midway through last season. With the American gaining influence in the side's offense, Os Pacenses lost just once in the final five games to steer clear of the trap door and end up in 10th place.
Now though, he must break back into a side that has lost just once in the first six games of this season.
"The team's doing well and obviously I'm trying to get back to game fitness," Alvarez said of the challenge ahead. "When my opportunity comes, I've got to take advantage of it."