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Mike Sorber reflects on his time with Pumas

The former Pumas midfielder talks about Clasicos against Club America and the smog in CDMX.

Mike Sorber US OLYMPIC SOCCER TEAM

Mike Sorber, now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer, was one of the first norteamericanos to ever play in Mexico. I spoke with Sorber after a morning practice with the Union about the start of his professional career with Pumas in 1995. He was recommended by the United States National Team coach and former Pumas player and manager Bora Milutinovic that they give him a look. “He (Milutinovic) still had a good relationship with the club, with the directors, and with the coach Tuca (Ferretti) who had played for Bora” Sorber said. Milutinovic had coached Ferretti while at Pumas from 1978 through 1983, when Milutinovic went on to manage El Tri. Milutinovic would start coaching the United States National Team in 1991, and gave Sorber his first cap in 1992. “They were in need of a center midfielder, so my name came up and that’s how the process got started.”

Sorber’s first season with Pumas was 1995-96, and Pumas made the playoffs after having missed them the previous year. “It was a good team” Sorber said, “They didn’t have the two championships (the Apertura and Clausura) back then, and when I got there we lost the first game to Leon and then we went 14 games straight we either tied or we won so that took us up the table. We got to the playoffs, we played Cruz Azul at home, and we won 1-0 in the only night game I played at the C.U. (Ciudad Universitaria, where Estadio Olimpia is located). Then we played at Cruz Azul, and we lost 1-0 on a penalty kick in the 90th minute. (Jorge) Campos saved it, and they scored the rebound. Because they were one spot ahead of us in the table, they went through. But we had a good, young team. There were a lot of good, young players that ended up playing for the (Mexico) National Team, (and) that got looks with the National Team, so it was a great experience.”

Speaking of Jorge Campos, I asked what it was like playing with guys that would become legends of the Mexican game. “I knew Campos and Claudio Suarez were the two big names from having played so many games with the National Team. Not until I got down there and you could see the daily interaction and just the environment. Playing in the US, we would have one or two reporters at a game, and we would play in small college stadiums and high school stadiums for our national team at the time. To go down there and for a good rivalry to have – when we played in CU against Club America or Cruz Azul or Necaxa we’d get 100,000 in our stadium and for a good game we’d get 15, 20, 40,000 – that was an environment that I just had played in in some national team games so I’d had that experience, but I hadn’t played in a professional league because there wasn’t one in the US, so that was phenomenal to see and to experience.”

“They had a lot of good international players down there. At the time, you were only allowed three foreigners so that was a little bit different. I never really thought about who we were playing against. I knew who we were playing against, but the most important thing for me was our team, how we did, and what I could do to help the team. Obviously you know some of the star players that you’re playing against going in, and you’re aware of those guys because they can make great plays, and they can make a difference in the game. But for me it was more important how Pumas was doing and how I could help.”

I asked about adjusting to playing in Mexico, and Sorber continued “The style of play was actually my style, so that was a perfect fit. Adjusting to the smog and the altitude, the altitude within about ten days you’re adjusted to it. The smog I never really adjusted to” he says with a chuckle. He went on to talk about the language barrier, as he did not speak Spanish before heading down to Mexico City. “That was one of the great experiences was learning a new language. The soccer part of the language I was able to pick up the quickest because that’s what I heard every day. The day to day interactions at the dinner table or just out with friends - that took me a little bit longer. But within six months I started to get a good grasp of it and I started to speak it as well, so that was a big help.”

When asked who the toughest opponent he faced in Mexico was, Sorber didn’t focus on an individual player and instead thought more about the teams he had to face at the C.U. “Club America had really good players, they had (Marcelo) Bielsa was coaching at the time... Cruz Azul was up there, and actually Necaxa. Necaxa had Dominic Kinnear was playing on that team and they had I think (Manuel) Lapuente as coach in there. He was a very good coach, they just had guys with international experience, Mexican National Team players, and we had some kids who were 17, 18, 19 years old - young kids (like) which we have here with the Union that were becoming professionals and cutting their teeth and getting that experience. Overall, the different stadiums, the climate, the altitude, you put the whole package together and it was a good league to play in and a good fit for me.”

Sorber returned to the United states two seasons later to join the fledgling Major League Soccer. “The decision was discussed before I went down (to Mexico) that the league (Major League Soccer) was starting and that they were trying to bring national team guys back so I kinda had my mind made up before I went down that I would like to try to be a part of getting the MLS established and getting started and coming and playing in the US. In hindsight, it was a great decision. Had I stayed down there, it was more of an established league, more my style, there would have been advantages to staying as well. But I’m proud of what we started here and got started here and look at the league today it’s thriving and doing great, and that’s the most important thing for American soccer. I’m happy to say I was a part of that.”