GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Joel Soñora and Ryan Palmbaum are two American youngsters from very different backgrounds who have three crucial things in common: Both are working their way up Boca Juniors’ famous youth system, are part of US youth national teams and play in the creative attacking midfield role.
But it's there the similarities end.
Soñora (above) was born in 1996 in Dallas, where his legendary Argentine father Diego was playing for Dallas Burn. The US U-20 international grew up predominantly in Argentina and while he understands English, he isn’t fluent.
For 13-year-old Palmbaum, a US U-14 international, the struggle was uprooting from Northern California to join Argentina’s Estudiantes de La Plata three years ago without knowing so much as a word of Spanish. He had no relationship with the country outside of former player, consultant and coaching mentor Maximiliano Roditis, who has traveled back and forth from the US to aid the integration process and guide Palmbaum in his technical development.
Heading south was naturally a major decision, but Palmbaum’s parents were adamant that the benefits outweighed the negatives.
“We were looking to leave,” Palmbaum (below right) told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview. “When Estudiantes asked me to stay, that was basically the decision made.”
Last December, things got even better for Palmbaum in Argentina, when he was accepted from a group of more than 5,000 youngsters and invited to join Boca Juniors.
“I’d been wanting to play for Boca for a long time,” said Palmbaum, who is now fluent in Spanish and has a heavy Argentine accent.
While it is early days in Palmbaum’s fledgling career, he is on the first step of the ladder in the ’00 category, fighting for the right to emulate the likes of Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tévez.
Soñora’s development, naturally for his age, is much further along and his father believes he could be “one step away” from a debut with Boca after training with the first team in 2013.
The 17-year-old (at right) said he tries to emulate the style of Barcelona duo Xavi and Andrés Iniesta and says he is a very technical player.
Thankfully for US fans, he also seems very content within the USMNT set-up and Tab Ramos’ U-20 side, from where he recently returned from camp, despite his Argentine roots.
“There is no conflict,” Soñora told MLSsoccer.com on the phone from Buenos Aires. “I like the group; the organization is very good. The people in the United States support you, it helps a lot.”
Soñora can play as a left winger but prefers the “enganche” role, the Argentine label for attacking midfielder, and said Ramos switches between a 4-3-3 and a 4-3-1-2 with the U-20s, which suits the Argentine-American to a T.
Soñora has also been at Boca for three years and says his trainers are looking for “technical skills and aggression in going for the goal.”
And as for how his decision to play for the United States sits with his father Diego – a three-time MLS All-Star – there is no reason for concern.
“It was up to him to take the decision,” he explained. “The US called him up first, and he felt and feels very good playing with them.
“For me, the most important thing is him being happy wherever he plays.”
Soñora and Palmbaum may not be treading the traditional path to the top of U.S. Soccer, but their development at Boca will be intriguing to follow.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.