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Orozco Fiscal seeks a return to MLS

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Michael Orozco Fiscal just wants to come home.

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The part-time U.S. national team central defender, who scored the game-winning goal in the Yanks’ first ever win on Mexican soil on August 15, is 26 years old. He’s been playing professionally in, yes, Mexico, his parents’ home land, since he finished high school in his native Southern California at 17. And ever since then he’s never really wanted to do anything but play at home, in Major League Soccer.

But Orozco is not in MLS. And just why that is remains in dispute. Orozco claims that an ex-MLS coach, Peter Nowak – who is currently embroiled in litigation with the club he once managed – broke promises. He also claims that he was not compensated as promised by the Philadelphia Union. From there, things get murky.

Orozco traveled the customary path of the top prospect, funneling from state teams into regional teams into youth national teams. As a high school senior, the finely-honed technician who lacked the size of a conventional American defender, tried out for Chivas USA, a soon-to-be expansion team in Major League Soccer, but was offered no more than a developmental contract for $12,000 annually. At the time, there were no MLS academies or home-grown roster sports, so a young local player had to be rostered like a full professional, even in a developmental slot.

“It was just so hard because the contracts they would give you are not the best,” recalls Orozco. “The money in Mexico is better than what they would pay in the U.S. And it’s hard to break into the team [in MLS]. If you’re drafted and you get a lot of money, you have a very good chance of playing. But if you’re not, you’re just another rookie.”

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Without a few wasted seasons in college soccer – where practice and game time are curbed to the point of being harmful to player development – and a subsequent high draft pick, prospects weren’t taken seriously. So Orozco, who was in no mood to fritter away previous earnings years in an already short career by going to college, successfully tried out for Necaxa in Mexico. After finishing high school, he moved down to Mexico full-time to become a professional – a move emulated by a host of Texan and Southern Californian Mexican-American teens since.

He’d dreamed of playing in MLS. “If Chivas USA had offered me a senior contract I would have stayed in America,” says Orozco. “That was the goal in my mind to stay. I still think about it.” But he was given little choice.

They develop talent in Mexico, they don’t expect young players to walk in and compete for a place in the first team straight away. “That was one of the big things,” says Orozco. “Out here we have a youth division, a second division, a third division. I trained with the senior team but could play at a youth level. Players that are promising in the U.S. don’t play games, get stuck at a level and never get to their full potential. When you’re playing games here you always learn something new and better yourself.”

After three years with Necaxa, his youth deal expired. He was offered another developmental contract by Chivas USA and was tempted. But the head coach at Necaxa, Raul Arias, was leaving for San Luis, also of the top Mexican professional tier, and asked Orozco to join him. He became a regular in 2007-08, his second season with San Luis, and started all three of the U.S.’s games at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on a team coached by Peter Nowak.

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Ever eager to make his career in MLS, Orozco “begged” – his description – San Luis to loan him to the Nowak-led Philadelphia Union for its expansion season in 2010. Orozco had a solid year in Philadelphia, demonstrating his considerable skill but his knack for errors too. Nowak told him the Union would pick up the option to purchase him from San Luis outright, claims Orozco. Orozco also claims the contract he agreed to with Nowak would pay him his full San Luis salary plus a scheduled raise. Orozco put down a deposit for a new rental home in Philadelphia and bought furniture. But by the pre-season of the 2011 season, no contract had materialized, and Orozco says he wasn’t paid by either club in the interim, nor was he compensated for his living expenses, as purportedly agreed.

When Orozco confronted Nowak, Orozco believes Nowak offered less than what he claims a pre-contract called for. “I was making $200k and I was supposed to get a raise, but he wanted to give me only $120k,” Orozco says. He claims Nowak suggested they keep the $500,000 transfer fee that was due to San Luis and split it amongst themselves. He refused. “I wanted to do things right,” Orozco says. But when he wouldn’t play ball, he claims, Nowak badmouthed him to the club and sent him back to San Luis two weeks before the start of the season. The team was in pre-season training camp in Greece but Nowak literally booked him onto the first plane home, without giving him the chance to say goodbye to teammates. “They said I was being difficult and Peter turned everybody against me,” says Orozco. “He said he wasn’t going to let one guy damage the team.”

Orozco’s furniture is still in storage in Philadelphia. And he never got paid for almost five months between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, or for his expenses. “I’m not going to recover it ever,” he says.

Nowak is currently embroiled in an ugly lawsuit with the Union. After being fired in June, he has brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against the club. The club, as reported by Philly.com’s The Goalkeeper blog, argues it had grounds to fire him, writing in a counter-motion that Nowak had “demonstrate[ed] gross negligence” in making injured players train and play, denied them water during practices in warm temperatures, generally treated players “unusually harsh[ly]” and “created a hostile work environment and culture of fear.”

“He was very disrespectful to everybody,” Orozco claims. “If you sit down and talk to all of the guys who were on the team back then, they all know.”

The counter-motion also wrote of Nowak’s “insubordination” and said he “may have improperly profited from player transactions.”

Nowak’s agent Clifford Haines told FoxSoccer.com that Orozco’s allegations were misdirected. “It seems to me the player’s complaints are with the organization and not with the coach,” he said. “They are not Peter’s responsibility. Peter was under contract to the Union.”

The Union, however, claimed to be unaware of any issues between Orozco and Nowak. “These particular accusations are new to us and we are not in a position to comment at this time,” Philadelphia Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz said to FoxSoccer.com. (Major League Soccer declined to comment.)

On Wednesday Sept. 26, a federal judge sided with the Philadelphia Union in the suit brought by Nowak. She stayed the motion, pending arbitration, agreeing with the Union that, as per the terms of Nowak's contract with the club, the matter should be settled by an arbitrator rather than a federal judge, Philly.com reports.

Indeed, Orozco corroborated that he only had problems with Nowak and Diego Gutierrez, the club’s head of scouting and player development.

Whatever went down exactly, the outcome was unambiguous: Orozco was consigned to Mexico once more. Yet as a defender, he is appreciated there, in spite of standing just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. He’s part of the reason Mexico’s youth academies teem with young Mexican-Americans, who combine Mexican skill and vision with a hard-working, hard-nosed American mentality. Fellow national teamer Herculez Gomez says the Chicano is “the North American player of the future.”

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“There have been a few of us [Americans] that have come out here and made a big difference,” says Orozco. “There’s a lot of Americans playing here now, in the youth levels, at the lower leagues.”

“Here they call me gringo and they call me Mexican too,” Orozco adds. “They say, ‘You have the mentality of the American player but you play like a Mexican player. You can play hard but you’ve got the little touches, the little one-twos.’”

Orozco has a fan in U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann too, who has handed Orozco four caps in the last 14 months since his lone appearance for the senior national team after the Olympics in 2008. Klinsmann has been keen on mining the Mexican-American population and prizes central defenders with sufficient technique to help distribute the ball – especially ones with the grit to compete internationally. “He gives everything he has once he’s on the field and that’s why he merits to be back with our group,” says Klinsmann. “We now have an eye on him with still a long road to go to [the World Cup in] Brazil in 2014.”

But whatever the spoils playing in Mexico have brought him, if Orozco is forging a path for himself, he continues to hope it will lead him home. “If there’s ever a chance to get back to MLS, I would love to do that,” he says. “If I had the opportunity I wouldn’t think about it twice and go back.”

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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