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The best prep soccer team in America is in Houston and has a black coach

Vincenzo Cox coached Alief Elsik High School to No. 1 in the Super 25 ‘USA Today’ poll

Vincenzo Cox keeps a soccer ball in the classroom where he teaches U.S. government at Alief Elsik High School in southwest Houston. That is, when he isn’t coaching the best prep futbol team in America. The soccer ball helps Cox squeeze in more time to recruit for his top-ranked squad in the Super 25 USA Today poll.

“I keep a ball in the classroom just in case I run into a kid,” said Cox, who is being heralded as the first African-American boys high school soccer coach in Texas to win a state championship after Alief Elsik’s 1-0 thriller over San Antonio Reagan on April 21. “I give him the ‘hallway test’ to see if he can comfortably juggle the ball.”

Cox believes his school’s newly minted soccer crown will persuade even more students of color to play for Beyoncé’s alma mater. Alief Elsik — located in one of Houston’s most diverse communities, with a roster of players from all over the world, including Mexico, El Salvador and the Ivory Coast — shattered the stereotype that the best high school soccer in this country is played by suburban white kids.

“Alief is a community that’s been kind of forgotten. It’s labeled as an area that has potential but will never do anything,” said Cox, a Miami native and former sprinter at the University of Houston whose teammates included world-record holder Leroy Burrell (now the Cougars’ track coach) and training partner and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mike Marsh. “I have a job that a lot of people didn’t want, but this is the perfect job for me. We have a special group of kids.”

Alief Elsik’s state championship also holds special significance for the small group of African-American men who coach high school soccer in football-mad Texas. Van Daniel, who coaches boys soccer at Mayde Creek in nearby Katy, attended the final with Stephen F. Austin boys soccer coach Robert Jones.

“It’s a big deal. We talk about it a lot. We’re all trying to get there,” said Daniel, who guided his previous school, Davis High in Houston, to the regional semifinals in 2007 and 2008 and advanced to the regional final in 2010. “I made the regional finals right after Coach Jones became the first black head coach to reach the regional finals. Coach Cox just opened the door a little bit more.”

Burrell knows Cox better than most people. After all, Cox was Burrell’s training partner when Burrell set the world record in the 100 meters in 1994 and won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 4 x 100-meter relay a year later at the Barcelona Olympics. He said Cox’s rise to the top of the soccer world was fraught with challenges and acceptance for his program.

“Vincenzo will tell you he wasn’t necessarily welcomed into the [Houston] soccer community. It was dominated, especially in this area, by predominantly suburban school districts. There’s a different population there,” said Burrell, whose son, Cameron, played soccer at a young age before switching to track. At last year’s NCAA outdoor championships, Cameron broke his father’s school record in the 100 meters and anchored the Cougars’ first-place 4×100 meter relay team.

“Vincenzo literally took that program from nowhere to a national championship-caliber program,” Burrell said. “He was the right person at the right time to bring that soccer culture to life.”

Cameron Burrell said Alief Elsik’s success could entice more people of color to play soccer.

“Soccer doesn’t really have a big presence in the black community, especially among boys. I think that’s one area where we’re lacking in America,” said Burrell, who believes his world-class speed would have helped him excel in soccer. “If we had more players from the black community come and have a fair chance like in football and basketball, I think we would have more of a presence in the sport.”

Asked about the historical significance of his achievement, Cox didn’t want to make his race or the race of his players an issue.

“I really don’t know the significance,” Cox said. “I just focus on the kids. Maybe it will sink in later.”

Said Daniel: “Vincenzo is a humble guy. Kids don’t really see black coaches. This opens the door for them to say, ‘I can do this.’ This could bring more youth to the game to become coaches.”

They should study the career path of Cox, 45, who made a successful transition from track athlete to soccer coach. After tryouts to play professional soccer in Europe and the U.S. with the MLS’s Columbus Crew, Cox finally found his calling.

“My first sport was soccer. My family lived in Germany before we moved back to the U.S.,” Cox said. “I had a chance to be a very good track athlete at Houston. I was groomed by world-class athletes like Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell.”

Cox ranked among the top college hurdlers from 1994-96. He finished fourth in the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials in the 400-meter hurdles in a group that included Olympic champion Derrick Adkins.

Marsh, who won two gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said Cox is a rarity among soccer coaches because he combines elements of soccer and track.

“Coaches don’t understand the depth and knowledge that Vincenzo brings from track to soccer,” Marsh said. “He ran for the best track coach that ever coached, in my opinion, and that’s Tom Tellez. Vincenzo fell in love with soccer at a young age. He comes from a military family that spent time in Germany, where soccer is huge. He understands soccer and a lot of the biometrics behind running and cutting that many coaches don’t have training for. His boys move down the field with the kind of grace you see in track athletes.”

“I coach my kids how to use their speed and when to use it,” Cox said. “I liken myself to Richard Williams [father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams]. That man was self-educated about tennis, and people didn’t want to accept the fact he knew what he was talking about.”

Cox’s teams play beautiful soccer. Crisp passing, sophisticated field spacing, constant ball movement and no wasted motion are just some of the hallmarks.

“I saw a few schools already trying to copy Elsik’s style. That’s how it’s going to be the next few years. Everybody is going to want to play soccer the right way,” said Houston Dynamo Academy under-17 assistant coach Mohamed Kallon, a native of Sierra Leone who played professionally for several teams, including Inter Milan, and is widely considered to be his country’s most famous soccer player. “I have worked with Vincenzo and his players, and they are tactically proficient. Their style is completely different.”

John Harris is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He's a managing editor at Hunt Scanlon Media, and a former writer for CBSSportsline.com.