Tijuana standout discovers new world when crossing border to play soccer (11-2003)

November 26, 2003

By Ben Saxe
Special to the Union Tribune

Article taken from the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper

Few 16-year-olds lead a double life to match that of Andres Leon.

Living in Tijuana's Colonia Obrera, the soccer-crazed Leon plays on his school's team, his father's adult league team and a Mexican select youth team.

Come Friday, when family friend and second mom Kathy Farfan picks up Leon and drives him north of the border, he enters another world as a standout forward for the Under-16 San Diego Nomads soccer club.

"In TJ he plays on a shingle field and lives in a very small house on the side of a hill," Nomads coach David Armstrong said. "Then he comes here and is checking into five-star hotels and eating in restaurants, being fed properly, and traveling the country."

Beyond weekend practices and local games, the Nomads' tournament schedule has taken Leon to Oregon, Philadelphia and Florida. He's competed in the Dallas Cup four times.

A trip to Maryland last year illustrates Leon's weekly dichotomy. Leon scored once as his Nomads team recorded a 2-0 victory to win a national championship game in the Snickers Cup. Leon was awarded the prestigious Golden Boot, given to the best player of each age bracket.

Two days later he was back in Tijuana in the two-bedroom house he and six others call home.

Leon said some of his friends in Mexico don't believe stories of his travels.

"I don't know why. I guess because it is so difficult in Mexico," Leon said through an interpreter. "But then they come to my house and see all the trophies, then they believe me."

None of which would be possible without the selflessness of Farfan.

For more than five years the substitute teacher's aide has driven to the border, which is the easy part, then spent a half hour twisting and turning through Tijuana until she finally arrives at Leon's house.

"He lives on the side of a hill, and they just paved the roads a couple years ago," said Farfan, who recently moved from Chula Vista to Pacific Beach. "It was kind of scary when it would rain because the roads were muddy and really, really steep."

Leon was born in Los Angeles, but his family moved to Tijuana shortly after his birth. His father, Idelfonso Leon, and Kathy's husband, Luis Farfan, have been friends for years.

When the Farfans' twins, Gabriel and Michael, left their club team in Chula Vista to join the Nomads' Under-11 team, they brought teammate Leon along.

This summer Gabriel and Michael were chosen to attend the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., yet Farfan continues to transport Leon even though her sons are no longer playing for the Nomads.

"She's worked wonders," Armstrong said. "At one point she was responsible for bringing five players to games."

Leon's Under-16 team will be participating this week in the Nomads' annual Thanksgiving Tournament, headquartered at UCSD. Among the beneficiaries of the tournament's fund-raising is a Nomads scholarship program that has picked up Leon's tab every year, including travel costs.

"I am grateful to Kathy and to her husband," Leon said. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't even know about this team and the opportunity that comes with it. But I also appreciate my family for letting me do this."

Leon's family has been supportive of his soccer career even in the face of tragedy. This summer, Andres' older brother, Eduardo, and a cousin were killed in a shooting south of the border.

The incident occurred just as the Nomads were to embark on a streak of six games in eight days that included two scrimmages against the Under-17 national team and two rounds of the State Cup, unparalleled exposure to national and collegiate coaches.

"When something goes wrong, you can't stop, because the world keeps going," Leon said. "I talked with my family, and they said I should just do what I feel. I felt I should keep going."

Leon missed one game to attend the funeral. Stateside, his Nomads teammates formed a circle before the game and said a prayer for their absent teammate.

"My team is like a second family to me," Leon said. "It felt good to know they did that. They said a prayer and gave me a card to cheer me up."

It is obvious from watching Leon interact with his Nomads teammates that the three-time State Cup champions are a close-knit group. It's easy to understand why he would look forward to seeing them each week.

Said Farfan: "It's like going to Disneyland for him every time I pick him up"