CARSON, Calif. – Miguel Acosta can usually be found on a soccer field, in a group or by himself, endlessly running with a ball at his feet, mastering his touch, exploring new ways to express himself in a game that has provided a foundation in most trying times.
The 16-year-old midfielder from San Diego, one of three finalists for the top honor in this year's Sueño MLS talent search – along with Isaac Arellano of Las Vegas, Nev., and Baltazar Duran of Cicero, Ill. – is a startlingly fine player possessing the tools to go far and an uncommon drive that just might get him there.
He greatly impressed the Sueño MLS scouts and coaches over the past month and is considered by some of them to be the most advanced player in this year's competition. So many players here insist that soccer is their life, but for Acosta, it's actually so.
He wishes it weren't so true.
Acosta lives less than an hour from his parents, but there's a border separating them from him, and he's not seen their faces, nor those of his younger sisters, in nearly six years.
They were deported when he was 11, and he lives with one of the coaches from Poway Vaqueros, the club for which he plays, sharing a room with the coach's son, one of his teammates.
“It's pretty tough for him ...,” said Armando Torres, who serves as Acosta's guardian and mentor. “It's emotionally a roller-coaster. The thing that takes it away is soccer. He's the guy that, when he has nothing to do, says, 'Coach, I'm going to the park.' He just goes and runs, goes out there and practices by himself. You can see the motivation.”
It shows on the field.
“He knows how to keep the ball very close to his feet, plus he has that little burst of speed,” Torres said. “That's the thing that we see [with Poway Vaqueros]. He's the guy who does all the magical plays.”
Acosta remained in the US after his parents returned to Tijuana, where he was born, for opportunities on the field and in the classroom. The aim is to get a college degree or a professional soccer career – both would be better – and there was a better chance for both in San Diego than in Mexico.
That doesn't make it any easier.
“It's been very hard, because I can't see them,” Acosta said in Spanish through a translator. “I'm in constant communication, but not being able to see them, it's very hard.”
So hard that Acosta went to Torres earlier this year and said he wanted to return to Mexico.
“He said, 'Can I speak to you?' And I could tell right away in his face,” said Torres, who has coached Acosta but is now in charge of the Vaqueros' under-12 team. “He said, 'I want to go home. I miss my parents.'
“But I spoke with him and told him, 'Miguel, what are you going to do in TJ? Yeah, you're going to be happy with your parents, but what are you going to do over there. There's not going to be anything better that's going to make your parents proud than you stay here and you do something about your life, either soccer or college. Get a degree, just like [an older brother]. That's going to make your parents prouder. If you go to Mexico. what are you going to do? You don't have a future over there.'”
Acosta gave it some thought.
“I did want to go back to Mexico, because I miss my family a lot,” he said. “But he said don't leave, you have a lot of opportunity here, in soccer and school, and that motivated me to stay.”
Opportunity arrived quickly, first at the LA Galaxy's Sueño MLS tryouts in early May. He was the dominant player there, with Galaxy II forward Travis Bowen comparing him to Juventus' Arturo Vidal and saying that “you can build a team around him,” and club scout Paul Soufl calling him “just a beast.”
He followed it up with a fine showing at last week's national competition in Southern California, especially wowing his coaches with a weaving run past five defenders to set up a goal in a victory over a U-17 team affiliated with the Galaxy.
“The first time I saw the boys train, they were tired and they'd been traveling [to Los Angeles], but there was something special about Miguel Acosta,” said former US national team and MLS star Eric Wynalda, part of the Sueño MLS coaching staff. “He just has the innate ability to get out of trouble and not get into trouble.
“It's not like he's overthinking the game, but he definitely has the little things that you watch for in a player. The way he opens his ankle, the way he sees the field, the way he makes a pass easier for the guy who's receiving. You can see it right away. And throughout the week.”
“He has something,” agreed former Mexican national team star Pavel Pardo, another of the Sueño MLS coaches. “Of course, he has to learn, how can he be better player, how can he better technically and tactically. Mentally, also. This is the [next step] for Miguel.”
Acosta's status in the United States became official Wednesday, when he signed papers for an official student visa. It won't allow him to cross the border at San Ysidro and return, but there's talk of his sisters – both born in the US – coming across for a visit.
“We can go and pick them up,” Torres said. “We can take them to Disneyland and everything.”
Acosta says Torres has been like a father to him.
“He has helped me a lot in everything, in soccer,” Acosta said. “He gave me a home, he have me a roof over my head, he opened the doors to his home for me. I'm very thankful.”
And he has soccer, to carry him through.
“Miguel told me, 'Well, I have football. I always have football,'” Wynalda said. “And I said, 'Then make the most of it. Make the most of every day, every moment. It's the greatest job in the world. I hope it works out for you.'”