Football in America: In Chicago, talent balances soccer dreams and academics

CHICAGO -- This is the story of Chicago natives who aspire to be professionals in soccer or have already achieved that feat. On and off the pitch, they look to thrive and achieve excellence.

Consider Oscar Gonzalez, a star striker on the University of Illinois at Chicago's soccer team. He studies sociology and earns high academic grades; he also demonstrates great skill when it comes to playing football.

"It is very hard to have a job, going to school and playing soccer all at once. However, it is a struggle I face for myself each and every day," Gonzalez said. "If I don't get to be a pro, I will have sociology and I will be able to find a job on that field in order to make ends meet. There's still a year left for me in school and I hope I can keep on being the student I am today, so I can excel and move on to the MLS."

Chicago, with a population of over 2.5 million, according to the United States Census, is one of the most highly competitive cities in the country, and soccer is no exception. Whoever aspires to play in one of its college soccer sides will also have to excel academically. That duality pays off if they are ever scouted, by the Chicago Fire, the local MLS franchise.

"Dealing with soccer and academics simultaneously is no easy feat. However, my family has always been disciplined, so that's the only example I've looked up to," said Diego Campos, striker for the Chicago Fire, who was drafted in January after earning an economics degree at Clemson University in South Carolina.

"People see you playing a match in college. However, they don't know that you have to get back home to do homework. My dream was always playing with the pros but combining that with academics and good grades."

In Chicago, life spins just like the Ferris wheel, originally constructed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair) staged in the city. Some people are able to spin it favorably, both on and outside college campuses and on the many soccer pitches you can find.

Is football a perfect and viable excuse to leave college? That's the ongoing dilemma for many local talents who are trying to figure out if they should pursue a career as a professional soccer player or look for a more stable path as an engineer, economist, architect or doctor. In this sport, unlike many others played in the United States, opportunities are few and far between, explains Sean Phillips, head men's soccer coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The good thing about sports in the United States is that you have a choice between two different paths. You can choose to go straight to playing professionally or you can opt for college athletics. It is almost impossible to have such a choice in Europe or South America. Is it quite daring to try to balance your passion, in soccer, and be realistic enough in order to pursue a college degree," Phillips said.

"It is harder for a student trying to become a pro soccer player in the States, because the MLS, USL and NASL, are not just looking for domestic players, just like the NFL or NBA do, but they are trying to expand the field for international players. It is unfair, or challenging, depending on how you look at it, for someone trying to stay in school."

Enjoy the full "Futbol in America" series

- Episode 5: In Chicago, talent must balance school and soccer
- WATCH: Finding the balance in the Windy City
- Episode 4: Soccer thrives in the Big Apple
- WATCH: New York, where soccer never sleeps
- Episode 3: Dallas Cup's vital role in growing youth soccer
- WATCH: Dallas, the international takeoff
- Episode 2: Los Angeles academy bringing together Latino youth
- WATCH: LA inherits the American dream
- Episode 1: Miami ready to make its mark
- WATCH: Miami, the city with fans with no team

For coaches like Fernando Flores, from the Melrose Proviso Soccer Academy, local Chicago talents should not limit themselves to dreaming of the MLS as a goal. Instead, they should expand their horizons.

"We have brought talent evaluators from teams like Chivas [of Liga MX] who are willing to take a look at our local players here in Chicago. Many college students play soccer at a very high level, so if they can't get to the MLS, they should know that the Mexican League keeps an eye on them and if they are good enough, they will get their chance," said Flores, who once played for Liga MX club Atlas, alongside Mexico international Andres Guardado.

"Hispanic kids have the advantage of double nationality, so they can play in the United States and in Mexico without using a spot for a foreign player. That opens a lot of doors for them both in the MLS and in Liga MX."