The satellite dish in the backyard looked like it was searching for pulsars in deep space, at least that’s the way it seemed to Marcelo Balboa.
“This thing should have been in orbit. It was 20 (feet) by 20 (feet), just so dad could watch soccer from Argentina,” Balboa said.
“Being a kid born in the U.S. but having a South American mom and dad, soccer was life. There was listening to Argentine games on the radio, and then there was the satellite dish.”
It was an upbringing and education that enabled Balboa to overcome a barren American soccer landscape in the post-NASL era to play in three World Cups, pioneer the early years of Major League Soccer and be considered one of the best defenders in U.S. history.
“As a defender, our job is described as destroying things,” said 1990 U.S. World Cup coach Bob Gansler, a former defender himself. “Unlike defenders at the time, (Balboa) was comfortable on ball. He could stop an opponent, but he was a good on the outlet, a good passer long, and also could come along offensively on a restart.”
Balboa’s soccer education started early, almost from birth, when his father Luis was playing for the Chicago Mustangs of the United Soccer Association in 1967.
The family moved to California the following year, and with his older brother Claudio, Marcelo soon found himself in the park after school.
“Dad worked the graveyard shift, and he would come home in the morning,” Balboa recalls, explaining that his dad was a machinist at the Starkist tuna plant in San Pedro after retirement from soccer. “We’d come home from school, play in the park with him.”
“Dad made it clear: no school, no soccer.”
A former pro from Argentina, Luis Balboa clearly impressed on his sons the technical style that was evident in his own play.
“His dad didn’t move much,” said Gansler, a teammate of Luis Balboa on the Mustangs. “But the ball moved for him. His father was an out-and-out midfielder, a ball distributor.”
“And given his druthers, ‘Celo probably would have liked to stand at midfield, directing things from the center.”
It was that coaching attention and mindset that compensated for the lack of a professional league and system when Balboa graduated from high school in 1985.
After winning the 1987 Maguire Cup with his father as coach of Fram Culver, Marcelo attended San Diego State and then played in the semipro Western Soccer League and American Professional Soccer League with the San Diego Nomads, San Francisco Bay Blackhawks and Colorado Foxes – winning titles with all three.
At 6-foot-1, Balboa was a sizeable presence in defense, but it was his skill that made Gansler quickly insert him as a substitute for veteran John Stollmeyer as a holding midfielder in the opening game of the 1990 FIFA World Cup, and then kept him there as a starter for the remaining two games.
While under contract with the U.S. National Team, Balboa attracted interest from Chile’s Colo Colo, but the transfer was never completed. A second World Cup in 1994 earned him wide praise and an invitation to Greece by Olimpiakos.
He was expected to take the foreign player spot occupied by Nigerian international Rashidi Yekini, who did not get along at his new club. Since, Yekeni didn’t agree to a transfer, Balboa sat until Pachuca in Mexico called.
He jumped on another plane for a transcontinental flight in search of a contract, but still was unable to get a club to commit. Then fortune looked upon him favorably when Leon was unsuccessful in trying to acquire 1990 Argentina World Cup defender Oscar Ruggeri.
Another invitation beckoned, and within a day, he had a contract.
“Being Hispanic, and my dad being a very technical coach, going to Mexico was perfect,”
Balboa said. “They played on the ground, and it was very comfortable to fit into their system. It was tougher in Greece. They go a hundred miles an hour. The system I played my whole life just fit into Mexico.”
Balboa credits his two seasons at Leon as the most productive of his career, challenged constantly by ownership, the fans and the media. Ownership often came in the locker room to offer bonuses for victories, draws or goals.
While Balboa drew praise for his debut at Leon, his second game at altitude received a review in the local paper questioning if it was a wise decision to sign “the American.”
“Every week, it was a good review or a bad review. The fans were loyal and they’d back you, but they certainly were not afraid to give you digs. The best experience I ever had was in Mexico.”
“It switched the environment. You had to challenge yourself. It definitely raised my game. At the national team, the squad was set. In the APSL, if you had a bad game, there was no press, so nobody knew.”
With the United States beginning to improve, the environment for an American in Mexico was an even greater challenge.
“We used to kick the crap out of each other,” Balboa said, explaining the growing U.S.-Mexico rivalry. “When something went wrong, it was my fault. It took 3-4 months to prove myself to the fans.”
“By the time I was going back to MLS, they took a poll of the most valuable players, and I was in the top three. It took time. Even though I spoke Spanish, which made me more acceptable, if I had helped Leon win the championship, they didn’t care.”
Balboa came home in 1996 for the start of MLS, allocated to the Colorado Rapids as a member of the league’s founding generation.
He played for the club for seven seasons, helping them to the 1997 MLS Cup final, the 1999 U.S. Open Cup final and earning MLS “Goal of the Year” honors in 2000 with a memorable bicycle kick.
(The goal was memorable to everyone but Balboa, who suffered a concussion in the match and had no recollection of it afterward.)
He finished his international career in 2000 and has the fourth-most appearances (127) and third-most starts (117) in U.S. National Team history.
Along with contemporaries Fernando Clavijo and Paul Caligiuri, Balboa ushered in a generation of U.S. defenders that had more than one dimension. Now, in addition to duties as a television commentator on Rapids games, he is passing on his expertise as coach of Monarch High School in Louisville, Colo.
“It used to be a defender only had to defend,” former U.S. teammate and current U.S. under-15 National Team coach Hugo Perez said. “When Marcelo was with us on the ‘94 World Cup team, you didn’t see many defenders like him.”
“Now we have young ones coming up. Our defenders are better players with ball technically. They get into the attack. Now you see a generation of players who are good with their feet. It gives us a plus.
“He has been one of the best defenders in our country.”