On Thursday, Lower.com Field welcomes the next chapter in Columbus’ history of hosting the United States Men’s National Team. When El Salvador visits, the stadium will be full of shivering supporters and excitement as each team competes for a spot in the 2022 World Cup.
Behind the scenes, El Salvador native Carlos Mojica will have one eye on his responsibilities as the Columbus Crew’s communications team manager, where he helped make this event possible, and another on the match. Mojica is known to those in the media, but likely not fans of either the Crew or the USMNT. That changes with this game.
El Salvadoran soccer roots
Mojica spent the first 11 years of his life where soccer practically shuts the country down, especially when the El Salvador Men’s National Team plays. U.S. fans got a small glimpse of the team’s impact on its nation on Sept. 2, in the 0-0 draw between Thursday’s opponents when the stadium didn’t cheer as much as it exploded with sound.
Estadio Cuscatlán, which is the largest stadium in Central America, opens eight hours before matches to allow droves of supporters to pack its 53,400 seats. When the El Salvador national anthem plays, it sounds like there are at least 200,000 people singing it together. Mojica’s first decade on this earth featured soccer with a little less flair than Cuscatlán.
“The place where I grew up, the street was on an incline, so it was kind of steep,” said Mojica. “We’d play (soccer) on the street and you were either going uphill, where you had more control of the ball, or downhill, where you had more momentum. Because it wasn’t grass, you’d learn when to tackle and when not to tackle, because you didn’t want to get scrapes.”
The game that Mojica and neighborhood friends played almost resembled more futsal than traditional soccer, using curbs to their advantage. There was a field within walking distance, but gangs used it as their hangout, making it not the ideal place to play.
“When I say, ‘play in the streets,’ I think people think I mean, ‘Oh, it was a tough neighborhood,’” said Mojica. “It was not. It was literally just the street that we lived on we played on.”
Matching the “field” conditions for Mojica was the ball itself. There wasn’t a traditional soccer ball used in his neighborhood. Instead, the pavement called for the use of a hard, plastic ball, about the size of an average person’s head, that cost around 10 cents in U.S. currency. Whenever a ball wasn’t lost in someone’s yard or roof, Mojica and his friends would do all they could to keep the game alive. If the street punctured a hole in the ball, they would keep blowing it back up to avoid having to buy another one.
On the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador, Mojica and his friends, who kept up with European soccer too, did what any kid would do: they pretended to be their favorite football stars. For Mojica, it was Brazil’s Ronaldo that made him fall in love with the sport.
Moving to a soccer-less country
At 11 years old, Mojica moved to Medina, Ohio with his mother. Right away two things were different. First, nobody spoke Spanish. Second, nobody played soccer. Unfortunately for Mojica, there was no English as a Second Language teacher in his new town, so he learned the language by immersing himself in it. A common way was through watching TV.
Living just under 40 minutes from Cleveland, Mojica watched American football, basketball and baseball with the captions on to learn. His stepfather watched American major league teams like the Browns, Cavaliers and the team now known as the Guardians. While Mojica’s stepfather wasn’t a soccer fan, he would watch the rare televised match with him as a way of bonding with his stepson.
When it came to soccer, there was a more difficult divide. Pick-up soccer on the streets of his Ohio neighborhood, like Mojica was used to in El Salvador, was non-existent. Mojica filled the void by playing organized soccer through his youth. That continued until high school. Unfortunately, pay-to-play requirements were difficult to meet for his family, so competitive league play ended. However, through the years, watching soccer in America was becoming easier.
While following El Salvador as much as technology at the time allowed him to, Mojica followed the U.S. Men’s National Team. Players like Crew legend Brian McBride and former stars such as Eric Wynalda were his first jumps into the Red, White & Blue. At that time, really only World Cups got much airtime before premium cable and streaming revolutionized the sport.
After four years in the United States, Mojica’s family got cable television, which included the Spanish-language channel Univision. It made watching the sport he loved easier, but he still had to use the internet to keep up with the El Salvador National Team.
Over the years, Mojica had opportunities to see the El Salvadoran National Team in friendlies but his first experience with El Salvadoran football came in 2009. Mojica visited his home country to attend the league final, known as the Apertura. Competing in it was Mojica’s grandfather’s favorite club, which also made it Mojica’s favorite club, C.D. FAS.
At the famous Estadio Cuscatlán, Mojica witnessed a 3-2 championship game victory. C.D. FAS broke a 1-1 deadlock with a 95th-minute own goal, and 97th-minute winner. FAS gave up a 100th-minute goal, but it was too little too late and Mojica not only saw a championship (his first of many as a soccer supporter) but made an everlasting memory.
By 2012 Mojica had already built a list of accomplishments. After coming to the U.S. and not knowing more than a couple of basic English phrases, he graduated with honors from high school, then completed his Bachelors’ degree. Mojica stayed at Kent State for graduate school and his focus shifted from International Relations and Political Science to soccer.
“I worked full time for Kent State security because it was helping me pay for my Master’s,” said Mojica. “I was working fulltime on the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. Once I decided I wanted to go into soccer and just try to find a way into soccer, basically, all my free time became covering soccer.”
In January of 2013, Centro Deportivo, an English and Spanish soccer outlet, gave Mojica his first chance at writing about his passion. Mojica spent his time away from the graveyard shift covering the Crew and USMNT.
After graduating with a Political Science Master’s Degree in 2014, Mojica added the first of many soccer bylines to his resume. He joined minor league club AFC Cleveland, of the National Premier Soccer League, working in media relations and Hispanic community outreach. A year into his role, Mojica added Communications Coordinator for the NPSL league onto his responsibilities.
On Aug. 6, 2016, Mojica saw his second championship. In Independence, Ohio, AFC Cleveland won the NPSL league title against Sonoma County Sol, 4-2. In the stands for the championship was his stepfather, before passing away later that year, who began attending soccer matches throughout Mojica’s time with the club.
In January of 2017, Mojica won a trophy on the personal level when hired to the communications team of the Crew.
El Salvador and the U.S. National Team
As you’d expect, Mojica was excited when he learned that the Crew was to host the U.S.-El Salvador match. It added another chapter to an already impressive journey from slanted street soccer to the 2022 World Cup.
“Seeing the team from my home country and my adopted country going head-to-head against each other and being involved in it is not something a lot of people get to do,” said Mojica.
Thursday’s World Cup Qualifier brings a sense of gravity. Anytime a match result means getting one step closer to making the World Cup or slipping further from its grasp, there’s pressure. When the United States missed the 2018 World Cup, it was the country’s first time out of the tournament since 1986. On the other side, El Salvador has qualified only twice for the tournament, and not since 1982.
Currently, the U.S. sits in second place in the final CONCACAF group with 15 points, compared to six points for seventh place El Salvador. With six matches remaining, El Salvador still has a chance to qualify in one of the top three positions or the fourth intercontinental playoff position. Even with the importance surrounding it all, Mojica’s learned to not let it get to him.
“I used to get really stressed out who I should root for or why I should root for them,” said Mojica of when his two countries played. “Then it dawned on me that it’s the game I should be the least stressed out about. At the end of the day, I just want a good game and I like both teams. It’s become the game that stresses me out the least.”
There’s a lot to like for Mojica across the board for both sides, his own personal history aside. He’s now been in the United States longer than the 11 years he lived in El Salvador, and both teams have multiple connection to Mojica’s own soccer fandom.
Outside of the four Dos a Cero 2-0 victories against Mexico in Columbus, there’s former Crew coach Gregg Berhalter managing the USMNT. Current Black & Gold forward Gyasi Zardes and former Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen are on the roster — although Steffen is not with the team in Columbus. In addition, the coach for El Salvador, Hugo Pérez, is even a former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. There’s a lot to be excited about across the board, and just a little bit more for Mojica.
“It’s going to be seeing where I came from, and where I am, and two countries that have shaped me into the person that I am today,” said Mojica. “Lots of emotions, but all good ones.”