Woodburn High’s Bulldogs, aka Los Perros, started their 2005 soccer season with a handful of undocumented students, a midfielder groomed to play for a pro Mexican team, a goalkeeper living in his third foster home, three boys who spoke almost no English, and an Irish-descended white coach desperate to lead all of them to success. Caught between a Mexico they barely remembered and an America they hardly knew, this band of brothers forged an unlikely family.
More than just riveting sports writing, this story is about the fight for the future of the next generation- and a hard, true look at boys dismissed as gangbangers, told to “go home.” They played through the slurs of “pickers” from sideline crowds in lily-white Oregon. Off the field, they struggled to stay academically eligible, in a country where just over half of all Hispanic boys graduate.
The Boys from Little Mexico follows one team’s quest for its twentieth-straight state playoff appearance and first state championship. Their wins and losses along the way weave a beautiful and fast-paced narrative of how raw talent, discipline, and passion sometimes aren’t enough to capture the American Dream.
“With compassion and an unflinching eye, Wilson offers us through sports a preview of a new America, one whose people may look different, but whose virtues of what we like to believe in ourselves remains triumphantly the same.” -Howard Bryant, ESPN, author of Juicing the Game
“In The Boys from Little Mexico Steve Wilson does more than chase the American Dream—he captures it on the move. Through the lens of high school soccer in Oregon, Wilson provides us with a glimpse of the future of sports in America, one that promises to be as rich and compelling as the past.”—Glenn Stout, author and Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing
“A real life account of the inequities surrounding immigration as lived by all concerned, this year in the life of the Woodburn Bulldogs offers no easy answers. The frustrations they face are saddening, but theirs is ultimately a hopeful tale.” – Dana Brigham, Manager/Co-owner, Brookline Booksmith
“I hate soccer…but I loved this book. Steve Wilson has written a story where culture, sport and good writing collide.”
—Larry Colton, former pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and author of Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn
“Just as Buzz Bissinger did in Friday Night Lights, Steve Wilson manages to achieve the unexpected: a book about sports that turns out to be about so much more. He wrests poetry out of these boys’ lives, while aiming directly for that one destination where we all seek home—the heart.”
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of Into the beautiful North and The Devil’s Highway
“The Boys from Little Mexico proves once again that the language of sports is universal, and even when it is spoken by a bunch of immigrant kids in a working class town in Oregon, it still tells the old epic story of triumph, adversity, and beating the odds where you least expect it. Steve Wilson takes a small corner of the world and shows how big it can be, especially when a caring coach partners with some talented players in what Pele called ‘the beautiful game.’ This book is both heartbreaking and inspiring.”
—Madeleine Blais, author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
“An important, compelling book about the children who are changing the face of America. Today, one in five children in this nation’s public schools is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Steve Wilson takes you inside their fascinating world as no one else has. It is an unvarnished and moving account of the dreams and despair of immigrant boys on a high school soccer team who struggle not only in their quest to win the state championship, but also in their desire to adapt as strangers in a new land. If you want to understand your new next door neighbors, this is the book to read.”
—Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother
“On one level Steve Wilson has written a wonderful book about high school athletes in a community banded together by soccer glory. On another level, he’s written a wonderful book about race, sociology, and the shifting borders within this country. The Boys from Little Mexico will tell you more about the next generation of Americans than census data and politicians ever could.”
—Bill Reynolds, author of Fall River Dreams and ’78
“American soccer is far too often viewed as a country club sport. Steve Wilson spent five years earning the trust of Los Perros in order to put a human face on the young men of America’s fastest-growing minority group. With empathy and respect, Wilson reveals their compelling stories.”
—Grant Wahl, senior writer for Sports Illustrated and author of The Beckham Experiment
“Steve Wilson’s reporting is deep and true, clear and at times heartbreaking. These displaced boys come alive on the page as they make their challenging run through Oregon high school soccer.”
—David Maraniss, author of Clemente and When Pride Still Mattered
“The storyline is strong, the perspective is thoughtful, and the on-field action exciting.”
—Kier Graff, Booklist
“As real a sports book as you are going to find.”
- It’s Called Football
“A great book.”
- The New Republic
“This is a book about the real America.”
- A Pretty Move
“Excellent sports writing with sociological insights…”
- Nancy Pearl’s Booklust
“Steve Wilson’s brilliant, evocative storytelling not only allows the reader into the personal lives of these characters, but also widens the lense of the world they live in.”
- Welcome to the House of Soccer
“There is perhaps nothing more viscerally American than blue-collar sport: small-town pride writ large, desire, hope, brief denials of reality and death. This is of course the defining theme of TV’sFriday Night Lights (mercifully now resurrected for a fourth season), in which a Texas town’s dreams of football glory become a window into a broader vision of a crabbed and often stymied, always deeply felt life.
“A much different America—though no less American—is chronicled in Steve Wilson’s The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream (Beacon, 225 pages, $24.95). Here it is fútbol, not football, at the center, and the team in question is the nearly all-Latino players of the Woodburn High School Bulldogs—“Los Perros,” unofficially—who have qualified for the Oregon state soccer playoffs every year since 1986 (a state record, in any sport) without ever winning the title.
“Wilson followed Los Perros through their 2005 season as they chased the prize, chronicling not only the games but the people in them, from Mike Flannigan, the Woodburn legacy coach, to Octavio, a talented, broodingly intense, unfortunately undocumented player (and 3.5-GPA student) whose college hopes are stymied by the fact his father didn’t follow through on Reagan’s immigration amnesty offer. Young Octavio’s anticlimactic coyote run across the border—his first suspicious taste of hamburger and awed gaping at Walmart’s obscene bounty—is one of the highlights of the book, but also underlines the fact that for many illegal immigrants, their status was chosen when they were too young to truly choose.
“What also emerges in Wilson’s book is the insane importance of these soccer games for the students, and how unequipped they are for losing—or, how resigned they can be to the world being stacked against them. After a losing game they sob like characters in a bad soap. Still most of the players have bitten into that American apple-pie notion of meritocratic opportunity, even if they may feel partly excluded from it. Team member Cheo knows that English is the key to success, but the language comes hard to him; he sits blankly through his classes and begs the help of fellow Latino kids. Carlos lost out on his hoped-for soccer scholarships (and then partied too much, implausibly, at George Fox). Octavio worries about his citizenship—and is still worried, though now married to a citizen. Many—maybe most, including these three—are doing just fine.
“Amid a lot of lobotomized flap about immigrants—in Arizona in particular—what this book offers is an actual human face on immigration and the people affected by it. Woodburn here isn’t so much “Little Mexico,” but a study in what it means to be American.”
- Matthew Korflage, Willamette Week
“Far from the hoopla of the World Cup is the soccer world of Woodburn, OR, where the high school Bulldogs have been always in the playoffs but never the state champions. A team dominated by Latinos (mostly from Mexico), Los Perros (or Bulldogs) compete against schools with greater resources and social stability, but their story is as compelling as that of whoever wins the cup this summer. Wilson documents the squad’s 2005 season, a tale about soccer but also about the lives of young men who struggle to stay in school, work, and play the game they love. Essential for soccer fans and those who find inspiration in young people achieving well beyond expectations.”
“The Little Boys from Mexico crisscrosses and documents the tales of soccer, education, immigration, and high school in rural Oregon. Instead of focusing exclusively on soccer and its counterparts, author Steve Wilson weaves in ‘how immigration has changed the town’s school system, and how the boys struggle to achieve success at home, school, and on the pitch. The Little Boys from Mexico also focuses on two players and their relationships with a foster parent and the team’s white coach.’
“While Friday Night Lights is scrutinized under a microscope as a small town that lives, breathes, and bleeds high school football, this book examines the less popular sport of fútbol and the core group of teammates that fight battles on and off the pitch, sometimes without the support of their own families.
“The book is easy to read and even easier to relate to. Characters named Octavio, Angel, Carlos, and Martin seem like my best friends after only a few chapters. I’ve played against predominantly Hispanic soccer clubs and have been able to maintain several causal, but long relationships with some of their players. I remember meeting a poverty stricken goalkeeper, George, who I conversed with before, after, and even during games. I’m sad to report that Hispanics are met with negative stereotypes in Texas, but at least a few of my teammates and myself have seen these individuals as competitive and hardworking soccer players, not criminal undocumented immigrants.”
- Tim Patterson, Jared Montz Soccer
Now, when I first heard about this book, I immediately drew comparisons to “A Home on the Field” and “Outcasts United,” both of which 1) deal with how soccer brings ethnic communities together, 2) provide the basis for a feel-good, made-for-premium cable miniseries, and 3), are exceptional reads.
However, within the first five pages of the book, I knew this one was different.
From the start, it was clear that this was a character-driven story, which is often hard to come by in sports literati. The storylines of the genre often focus so much on the action that the characters fall into obscurity by the end of the story. This book, however, puts its characters to work, and Steve Wilson’s sharp, intelligent writing brings them to life.
The action is centered at Woodburn High School, a suburban school in Oregon, where Coach Mike Flannigan oversees the school’s boy’s soccer team, the predominantly-Mexican “Bulldogs” (or “Los Perros”). Flannigan, a former Bulldog player himself, is sort of the local boy returns to his roots-type person. As coach, he has successfully guided his charges to the playoffs every year of his tenure, but year after year, they fall short of the state championship.
But this story isn’t about winning the coveted state championship. Instead of a re-hash of the season, the team’s struggles, and how the team has to deal with the cutting ethnic remarks made by some of their opponents – important events, to be sure, but not major themes – we get vibrant pictures of Coach Flannigan, Omar Mendoza, a proactive parent, as well as Carlos and Octavio, a pair of players who apsire to attend college to better their lives.
Through their interaction, we learn about Flannigan’s past as an adopted child, Mendoza’s trials as a former high school dropout who becomes the surrogate father to nearly half the team. We discover that Carlos has bounced between foster homes for much of his adolescent life, and learn of Octavio’s determination to find a better life for himself after crossing the U.S.-Mexico illegally.
This isn’t your typical story about a team overcoming the towering hurdles. It isn’t a tale about underdogs. It isn’t about winning. It isn’t about all of the tired sports cliches that we’re bombarded with on a regular basis.
Rather, it’s an introspective tale about very real people whose lives happen to bisect on the soccer field. It’s about how they learn from each other. It’s about reconciling one’s past. It’s about personal demons. It’s about how some stories don’t have neat and tidy endings. Some stories simply leave you with the characters as they are: unfinished works.
Steve Wilson’s brilliant, evocative storytelling not only allows the reader into the personal lives of these characters, but also widens the lense of the world they live in. These characters are not perfect. They are only human. And it’s that humanity that Wilson so wonderfully weaves into his writing that sets this book apart from its peers.
-Brian O’Connell, Welcome to the House of Soccer
Woodburn, Oregon’s population is 51 percent Hispanic and 49 percent Anglo. It has the highest concentration of taquerias in the state and on Saturday afternoons the parks are crowded with Hispanic men’s soccer league games which culminate every August with an intense men’s league tournament called Fiesta Mexicana.
In The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream, journalist Steve Wilson takes us with him as he tags along with the Woodburn High Bulldogs’ all Hispanic soccer team during their season of 2005.
I found the author’s writing electric when he gave a play-by-play analysis of the team’s soccer games. I felt as if I was right there in the stands with the boys’ families and friends experiencing triumph when they won and frustration when they lost.
But, this story is about much more than winning or losing on the soccer field.
It s about a team of young Latinos who consistently work and strive to succeed on and off the field despite the many obstacles they face as teenage Hispanic males in the United States.
Its true strength comes from Wilson’s ability to get the boys to talk about their hopes and their dreams, the past they left behind in their native country of Mexico, and their desire for a successful future whether as a professional soccer player and/or as the first person in their family to graduate from college.
Wilson tells us that, “”Seen on the street, Woodburn’s players are more likely to be identified as gangbangers, thieves, or slick Lotharios than athletes, loving sons, or good students.”
However, throughout this book the actions and the words of these good sons and brothers consistently dispel the stereotypical images of young Hispanic teenagers, and for that alone this is a must-read and a worthy title to be a part of anyone’s library.
-Pam Burrell, Latina Lista