PORTLAND, Ore. -- Byron Alvarez is one of the Portland Timbers' best forwards and brightest stars. And yet he's the only member of his team who isn't paid.
Alvarez, a Mexico City native of Guatemalan descent, is playing for free in Portland because of trouble this season in obtaining a certain type of visa that would allow the A-League Timbers to pay him.
While at times he and his wife have struggled, Alvarez keeps at it for the love of the game.
"I don't care about the money. I grew up playing soccer in the streets of Mexico and the streets of Guatemala," he said. "Soccer is in my blood."
Alvarez, who played for Major League Soccer's MetroStars last season, could return to Mexico and try to hook up with a pro team or pursue another line of work.
But Alvarez wants to play soccer, and he wants to stay in the United States where his family has lived for the past 12 years. His wife, Kristen, is from Oregon.
"I'm living a dream," he said. "I would like to stay here."
Alvarez originally sought a P-1 visa that would allow him to be paid as a professional athlete by the Timbers.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the approval process has come under increased scrutiny. As a result, Alvarez and about a dozen other A-league players were in limbo while they waited out a hold on their requests, said Tim Holt, director of the United Soccer Leagues, which oversees the A-League.
League officials appealed to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, on behalf of one of the players. At issue was whether A-League players met the criteria as professional athletes, Holt said.
USL has met the requirement in part by showing it had TV contracts and fielded players who compete on an international level, he said. That will clear the way for the players to obtain P-1 visas, which should be issued anywhere in the next 30 days to a few months.
"It kind of caught us out of the blue," Holt said about the unexpected slowdown. "And it took about three or four months for us to sort out."
Alvarez and most of the other A-League players who lacked visas took on amateur status, meaning they could remain with their teams but not earn a paycheck. Holt said he knew of no players that were released or had to quit because of the delays.
Instead of waiting for a P-1 visa, Alvarez is pursuing something better - a green card that would let him live and work in the United States, and get paid by the Timbers. He's eligible because his wife is an American.
The Timbers want Alvarez to sign a long-term contract. As part of the deal, they'll help pay for the green card and the associated legal fees.
"We really want to try to make him a mainstay of the franchise," said Timbers general manager Jim Taylor, "somebody we'd like to build around."
Igancio Baez, Alvarez's agent, said the two sides were close on a three-year deal.
Alvarez, who'd like to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, ranks second on the Timbers with nine goals this season, even though he has not been able to travel to Canada for five games. An attorney advised him that leaving the country would hurt his priority for a green card, he said.
The 24-year-old won A-League player of the week honors after he scored all three goals in the Timbers' 3-0 victory over Vancouver on July 7. The A-League is the top professional league in North America behind MLS.
"Anybody can say they love the game," Holt said. "But his actions certainly speak louder than words."
Alvarez and his wife, who are expecting their first child, have been lucky. They are house-sitting in Washington state for a year, living rent-free in exchange for household duties while the owners are in China.
Alvarez's predicament is known in Portland, where soccer has taken on a higher profile with the University of Portland's NCAA women's title last year, and upcoming Women's World Cup matches.
The Timbers' Army, a booster group, was so touched by Alvarez's plight they bought him a gift certificate to a restaurant.
"They gave me an envelope and I thought it was a letter or something," he said. "Then I opened it and it was a gift certificate so I could take my family out to dinner. It was so nice, and I thought, 'I will pay them back by giving 100 percent on the field."'
Alvarez is not worried about his contract or green card status. That, he said, will work itself out eventually.
What concerns him is the Timbers' final push for the playoffs. With just seven games left, Portland (11-9-1) is ranked behind Vancouver and Seattle in the Pacific Division. Only the top two teams in each division make the playoffs.
Donating his time to the Timbers has been worth it. Just hearing his name chanted by fans in the stands has made him lucky, he said.
"I don't regret anything," he said. "I have been blessed. Playing in Portland, playing in front of my family, playing for these fans. I have been blessed."
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