How the USMNT Lost Top Prospect Jonathan Gonzalez to Mexico

Jesus JimenezFeatured Columnist IJanuary 18, 2018

Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez, left, fights for the ball with Cruz Azul's Francisco Silva during a Mexico soccer league match in Mexico City, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
B/R

On Jan. 8, Jonathan Gonzalez, one of the United States' most promising young talents, was asked a question that held the potential to change the course of his life. As it is 2018, though, he needed to decipher the six emojis his club, C.F. Monterrey, sent him on Twitter—the Mexican flag, a soccer ball, a heart, a taco, a cactus and a thinking face—before answering.

"If [the Mexican national team] would consider me, I am decided to defend the colors of this country," Gonzalez responded. "It would be an honor." He ended the tweet with a Mexican flag emoji.

The following day, Gonzalez confirmed his decision via a press release in English and Spanish on social media.

"The decision I've made has been profoundly difficult," Gonzalez's statement read. "I carry both my nationalities in my heart very proudly. However, it is time to make decisions and continue accomplishing my dreams, one of which is to represent Mexico."

The news hit U.S. soccer right between the eyes.

In losing Gonzalez, U.S. soccer will be deprived of a home-born player who had the potential not only to represent the national team for years to come but also to become one of its leading faces.

Although he won't reach the age of 19 until April, the midfielder has the sort of skills that could have made him a fixture in the U.S. lineup for a decade or more. Gonzalez doesn't run around the field; he attacks it. He doesn't waste time with the ball; he quickly delivers it up the pitch to create scoring opportunities. And when he doesn't have possession, he crisscrosses the field trying to pressure his opponents.

With Monterrey, he plays a defensive-midfield role. However, his speed allows him to move across all of the midfield area. Mexico's national team head coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, told ESPN Deportes in December that he thinks Gonzalez is capable of playing a slightly different role in Mexico's lineup—what he described as an inside winger on the right. 

That the Santa Rosa, California, native chose to play for Mexico came as a surprise to some in U.S. soccer circles, even though his Mexican-born parents provided him dual citizenship and the eligibility to play for either national team.

He had spent his time from the U14 level until now playing for the U.S. national side. And according to Michael Kammarman, press officer for the U.S. men's national team, Gonzalez had never openly expressed any interest or desire to play for Mexico.

Until now.

Signs that a split was possible date back to last November, when Gonzalez was not called up for the USMNT's last friendly of the year, a match against Portugal. Kammarman says part of the reasoning for leaving Gonzalez off the roster was because he had duties with his club.

The roster for the game against Portugal was mainly built around players out of the MLS playoffs and those available in Europe because they would be close to Portugal where the match would be played. On Nov. 15, though, Gonzalez and Monterrey had a Copa MX match against Club America. And on Nov. 18, they had their final match of the Liga MX's regular season against crosstown rival Tigres.

(Monterrey went on to win the match against Tigres, 2-0, sealing their place at the top of the table and securing the last-seeded team for the first round of the playoffs. Gonzalez played all 90 minutes.)

The plan, per Kammarman, was to allow Gonzalez to finish the season and playoffs with Monterrey and then invite him to the USMNT's January camp. Kammarman says Gonzalez received a letter with that invitation, but Gonzalez never responded, nor did Monterrey on his behalf.

Reports say (h/t ESPN) Gonzalez never received a call to inform him why he wasn't going to be on the roster for the Nov. 14 match against Portugal. For Gonzalez, it seems, the issue had less to do with not being called up and more with the lack of an explanation. So Gonzalez responded by not responding. And his decision last week appears to be the final message.

"[It's] like Jesse Gonzalez's situation but in reverse," said Peter Welpton, host of The KickAround on SportsRadio 1310 and 96.7 The Ticket in Dallas, in referencing the FC Dallas keeper who switched from Mexico to the U.S. national team.

"The kid was all-in for playing for Mexico, but when they made a misstep in how they dealt with him, the door was open for the USSF [United States Soccer Federation] to blow on his ear and whisper sweet nothings."

Added Tom Harrison, writer for FutMexNation.com, FA Level 2 coach and Level 1 scout for the Professional Football Scouts Association: "I think it's a big loss for the U.S. Any starting player for a Liga MX finalist would be a useful member of the U.S. squad, let alone an 18-year-old with bags of potential."

Taken in full view, Gonzalez's departure from U.S. soccer isn't all that surprising considering its current state. What 18-year-old would want to play for a national team with no head coach; no front-runner for their next president; no ticket to this year's FIFA World Cup in Russia; and, as Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported recently, only one full-time scout?

Given all of that, Gonzalez's desire to play for Mexico seems obvious.

"While I do worry this exposes everyone to how messed up things inside the USSF really are," Welpton said, "I do wonder how much of this is simply a function of a young teenager being attracted to the 'lifted skirt' of attention and potential of a World Cup now versus four years from now. I think of it like that currently popular meme of the distracted boyfriend, and I do worry he'll end up regretting it.

"Ultimately, though, it simply should have never gotten to this point. He wanted to play for the country of his birth, had done so many times, and to allow him to be lured away like this is just silly. Don't forget: We're dealing with young men—teenagers."

Those who have long known Gonzalez believe that his decision was in his best interest.

"I am certain the decision was very difficult, but in the end soccer is a business, and he is looking out for his future and career," said Adolfo Mendoza, president of California club Atletico Santa Rosa, where Gonzalez trained before signing with Monterrey.

"The USSF dropped the ball on this one. At this point, we just want to congratulate Jona and wish him much success in chasing his soccer dream. The entire staff, coaches and players at Atletico Santa Rosa wish him much health, success and happiness."

Still, Kolby Bains, Atletico vice president, admitted it would have been nice to see him play for the United States. "Of course, I personally would have loved to see him on the U.S. national team," Bains said.

"But this is his journey, and he chose the path that's right for him. Although his roots of soccer started here in the U.S. and his ambitions were to play for the USA, he worked really hard and took the opportunities as they came, resulting in a fortuitous series of events where Mexico opened a path for him to play at the highest level."

Of course, simply declaring he wants to play for Mexico does not guarantee Gonzalez a roster spot and plane ticket to Russia this summer.

"I would be surprised to see Gonzalez make it to this year's World Cup," Harrison said. "Osorio has plenty of options available to him in the defensive midfield position, and although no player is a nailed-down starter in this role, Osorio prefers to use a taller player, like Diego Reyes or Edson Alvarez."

Reyes has more experience, having played at the 2014 World Cup, and offers Osorio more versatility.

Gonzalez's first opportunity to impress Osorio could come later this month when Mexico plays a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Regardless of whether Gonzalez plays in Russia this summer or for how many minutes, Mexico now has a talented midfielder for the next decade, if not longer.

It's a move that could haunt the U.S. as soon as 2019 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and later on in 2026, when the U.S., Mexico and Canada may host the World Cup. The U.S. and Mexico may be teammates as host nations, but there's only one Jonathan Gonzalez, and he won't be playing for the U.S.

           

Jesus Jimenez is a Mexican-born, Dallas-raised writer and editor. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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