Boquete might be NWSL's best player

Craigh Mitchelldyer, Portland Thorns FC

In just 12 games, Portland Thorns FC midfielder Veronica Boquete has notched a NWSL-leading six assists.

Veronica Boquete is inescapably a product of her roots in Galicia, the region in the northwest of Spain that hugs the Atlantic Ocean north of Portugal, much the same way Oregon rests atop California some thousands of miles away.

And thank goodness she is.

Tourists follow well-worn paths on pilgrimages to the grand cathedral in her hometown of Santiago de Compostela, but their destination is where her journey began. It's Galicia on her mind when the midfielder for Portland Thorns FC celebrates a goal, the fingers spread across her face meant to represent the tentacles of an octopus, a staple of the region's seafood-rich cuisine. Home is there in the ease with which Vero, as she's most commonly known, communicates in both Spanish and Portuguese, the latter closely related to Galego, the regional language of Galicia that is spoken and understood side-by-side with Spanish.

But the roots are most apparent in those moments when a soccer ball becomes the pea in something that resembles a game of three-card monte that she orchestrates with her feet, defenders left to suffer the double indignity of being duped with the object of their attention in plain sight. Now you see it; now you don't. Now it's in the back of the net.

The moves came from Galicia, too, even if like the rest of a soccer-crazed nation, it gave it only grudgingly to a girl. Because it is also home to her father, a soccer coach, and older brother, voices that always told her to keep playing.

"[Since] I start to walk," Boquete said, "I was with them, playing at home or in the park or on the streets."

I've said at least three or four times this year she's the best player in the world, and I absolutely believe it. She's the one player in this league who can just take over a game.
Thorns FC coach Paul Riley on midfielder Vero Boquete

No stranger to professional soccer in this country, she won MVP honors with Philadelphia in Women's Professional Soccer during that league's final season in 2011, the 27-year-old "wizard," as Thorns coach Paul Riley describes her, is back at it on this side of the Atlantic. Since joining the National Women's Soccer League in June after a stint in Sweden, she has produced three goals and six assists in just 12 games, the latter tied for best in the league. While Portland is not where it would like to be in the standings, the odds of hosting a postseason game dwindling away to nothing, it enters Sunday's game against the Houston Dash (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) still very much in the race to defend the championship it won away from home a season ago.

It is bold enough to suggest she is the best player on a team that also features Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, but some don't stop there.

"She's just special," said Riley, who also coached her in Philadelphia. "I've said at least three or four times this year she's the best player in the world, and I absolutely believe it. She's the one player in this league who can just take over a game."

To that end, what she does on the field -- the dance moves by which she extricates herself from a crowd and changes direction with the ball at her feet, the chips that turn her foot into a sand wedge, the passing lanes she wills into existence where you are certain none were seconds earlier -- is all done with purpose. She is substance with style in a position that demands both of its legends.

"In the women's game, I think there's one position, the No. 10 position, that's very difficult to find compared to the men's game," Riley said. "I think it's something that obviously we as coaches need to improve at the youth level."

What we're left with would read like the most cliché stereotype if it weren't for the pesky detail that supporting evidence keeps appearing. Any suggestion that the United States is incapable of producing creative, inventive players ends around the time Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe or Erika Tymrak touches a ball. But the game's defining playmakers come from places like Galicia.

Boquete grew up in a country that discouraged girls from playing the national sport -- it might even be hasty to completely retire that verb to the past tense. Yet she is the kind of creative attacking player pined for in the United States, where girls at the youth level play soccer by the hundreds of thousands.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

One could argue that even with Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair on the roster, Veronica Boquete is Portland's top player.

"I think the two best No. 10s in the league are [Seattle Reign FC's] Kim Little and Vero Boquete, and they're both foreign players," Riley continued. "I think the emphasis in Europe is more on technique, whereas the emphasis on the American game at a young age is probably winning and athleticism. We create the best forwards in the world, and we have great defenders because they're so athletic, but we don't seem to be able to create that position, that player who can be comfortable on the ball.

"I think the other side of it is just watching games and listening to games and living in a world where football rules. Vero lives it every day in Spain."

It mattered more in the end that she was enveloped by that culture than that it was painfully slow to embrace her.

There wasn't a team for girls in Santiago de Compostela, so she tried to join a team of boys instead. For the first year, she practiced with the team but couldn't play, those in charge of the club unwilling to break with tradition. When she was finally allowed to play alongside the boys the following season and for years thereafter, she endured taunts and cold shoulders -- the harshest treatment, by her recollection, often coming from the mothers whose sons she played against.

"During all that years, I have to hear too many comments," Boquete said.

Whether it was football or futsal, there was nonetheless almost always a ball at her feet. Specialization in one sport at a young age is increasingly a source of criticism in the United States, its effects pointed to as a source of burnout and stagnation. But perhaps equally problematic is the supervision that comes with specialization. A young player moves from one team and one trophy pursuit to the next, with any down time filled by personal coaches and camps. Between an American cultural obsession with winning, whether it's a World Cup or an under-13 weekend tournament in Des Moines, Iowa, and a growing hesitance, sagacious or not, about leaving children unattended in any setting, playing soccer rarely means paying without coaches, referees, tactics and results.

It rarely means, well, playing, which is what Boquete was doing as she began to build the skills she puts to use today.

"In Spain, football is the king sport," Boquete said. "I remember I spent all my free time -- if I was in the school, the most important part was when we were outside and we just played. After the [school] day, we'd just stay there and play football. And then you go home and you are on the street playing football."

Which is not to say the Spanish star should cause her host nation a massive soccer inferiority complex.

As countries like Spain slowly, gradually and sometimes grudgingly accept that it's a beautiful game for both genders, they would be well-served to study the methods by which fast, strong and fit -- with no small bit of skill thrown in for good measure -- keeps the United States competing for every championship there is to win. As has been true for quite some time, they would be well-served to follow the lead of their own best player.

Boquete is a product of Galicia, from the dribbling down to the grocery shopping she does in Oregon to give herself a true taste of home that is otherwise elusive. But she has some Philadelphia and Portland, among other American stops, in her, too.

"I am a more confident player," Boquete said of the result of her time here. "Maybe before I come to U.S., I was more technique, and that is always good, but also when you come here you have to adapt. I feel that when you have to adapt, you get better. You compete with players that are stronger and faster and you have to think quick and you have to adapt your brain to this style. This is always helpful in the future."

Still, from the perspective of those fortunate enough to watch from the stands, the couch or the sideline as she goes to work, if not those charged with stopping her, it seems we got the best of this particular exchange.

"Let's be fair, when you pay money to watch a game, you want to pay money to see players like Vero," Riley said. "I would pay to watch her, and I'm coaching her."

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