After a very quiet preseason, the Philadelphia Union come into their inaugural match at First Kick as somewhat of an enigma. And so are some of their players.
But Philly’s roster has one player who stands out on paper, but might be an unknown to most MLS teams. The intriguing profile belongs to Roger Torres, who is poised to be the Union’s difference maker in 2010.
Torres, 18, is an attacking midfielder from Colombia described as having the technical skill set of a prototypical No. 10. And he comes to MLS after starting for America de Cali, who despite recent struggles on and off the field is still one of Colombia’s biggest clubs.
The man who spotted him was former MLS player Diego Gutierrez, now a FIFA registered player agent who heads up his own agency based in Chicago. Gutierrez first heard of Torres from the father of Fire defender Wilman Conde, another of Gutierrez’s Colombian clients.
“I thought the kid was too small for our league,” Gutierrez said. “And he really wasn’t playing against anyone.”
At the time Torres was a member of an academy based in Cali, Colombia called Estrellas 2000, which feeds young players to top-tier Colombian clubs. A few months after Gutierrez first saw him, Torres was loaned to Colombian first division club America de Cali. It wasn’t long before Torres was America’s best player, according to Gutierrez, who made a follow-up trip last September.
“I said to myself: ‘Is this the same player?’” Gutierrez said. “Physically he had developed a little more, he had a much better understanding of the game and he played with a lot of confidence. The second time I saw the swagger I didn’t see the first time.”
Rafael Uncein, who has been a Colombian soccer color analyst on GolTV for over six years, covered America de Cali matches when Torres came up to start 15 matches in 2009.
“He came out of nowhere, he was unknown,” Uncein said. “If he could play there [in Colombia], he can play here in MLS.”
Gutierrez and Uncein share the same technical breakdown of Torres’s game: he exudes skill, he has a refined left foot, and exquisite touch and vision. Despite his size, he is bottom heavy, well-balanced and can change directions quickly. He’s a playmaker who can start in the creative midfield role or on either flank.
Torres himself says he likes to model his game after FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi – perhaps the best little man in the world, with a potent mix of toughness and creativity.
“You always have things to work on,” Torres said. “Peter Nowak has helped me … I like the style of soccer he wants to play. He is a coach who really knows a lot [about the game]. I’m happy to be here and I hope to contribute a lot to this team.”
At first he was undecided about making the jump to MLS. Gutierrez and former MetroStars forward Antony “Pitufo” de Avila helped convince him of the opportunity. The Union now have the 18-year-old on a one-year loan with an option to buy his contract from Estrellas 2000.
And Torres is out to make sure he succeeds in his MLS adventure. His dad is not part of his family’s life in Colombia and at a young age he is the main breadwinner for his mother and two younger siblings.
Gutierrez believes that responsibility has transformed Torres into the mature and confident player who has fit into the Union squad without knowing much English.
“At this moment I feel like I am part of the starting lineup,” said Torres, who is the third youngest player on the team after Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga.
At First Kick on Thursday night, Torres will coincidentally see Freddy Montero across the way in a Seattle uniform. The fellow Colombia native was a top scorer back home before captivating the imagination of Sounders fans by scoring 12 goals in his first season with the club, all at the age of 21.
The Union’s youngster will come into the match with a right hamstring strain and is listed by the team as probable. But the only probable thing on Thursday is that nothing will come between the next Colombian sensation and his inaugural match with Philadelphia.
“I have the game in my head,” Torres said. “It should be a great game for us and our fans to get started.”