For Love or Country? U.S.-Mexico War for Prospects Tests Players' AllegiancesJuly 19, 2017
The last time Jesse Gonzalez went to Mexico as a child, he was 11. He was born in North Carolina and raised in Dallas, but as the son of Mexican-born parents, Gonzalez felt he was as much Mexican as he was American.
His father, from Toluca, came to the United States as a teenager to pick fruit. His mother, from Nayarit, arrived when she was 22 to work at a fishing and crabbing company. Then there was the sizable Mexican community in Dallas, which bonded while rooting for the Mexico national soccer team and followed clubs in Liga MX. El Tri games meant big family cookouts.
"That's one of the reasons I got stuck with hearing 'Mexico this; Mexico that' as a young kid," Jesse, now the 22-year-old goalkeeper for FC Dallas, says. "My mentality was, one day I want to be there and play for Mexico." His idol was Mexican goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, who made 99 appearances for the national team and was voted the best netminder in the Mexican league seven times.
As a teenager, Gonzalez established himself as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in North America in the FC Dallas academy—but only after his father had borrowed money to keep him in the most competitive youth leagues. When he got called into Mexico's under-18 and then under-20 national teams, it was hardly a choice. Mexico was the first to call, and it's for whom he wanted to play. "There was talk about me going into a camp [with the U.S.], but nothing really happened," Gonzalez says. "I stuck with Mexico. It never crossed my mind, switching to the U.S. or going to a camp."
Gonzalez started two of Mexico's three games at the under-20 World Cup in 2015 and moved up to the under-23 team the following year. It was around that time, however, that Gonzalez felt a pull toward his American home. Then-U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who had a strong track record of recruiting dual nationals, told Gonzalez he could come to their January camp for a few days and just feel things out before deciding whether he wanted to stay. "He was really nice about it," says Gonzalez, who was reportedly very conflicted, according to ESPN FC.
But the Olympics were coming up, and Gonzalez had a chance to go with Mexico, the defending champions from the 2012 London Games. El Tri had already qualified, whereas the U.S. faced a daunting playoff with Colombia to get to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games—which it lost. Klinsmann called Gonzalez up for the camp, but Gonzalez, frequently reminded by his family of his roots, stuck with Mexico again.
Gonzalez made Mexico's preliminary squad but was cut from the final Olympic team in favor of a veteran goalkeeper, Alfredo Talavera, drafted in for his experience. "I was really upset," Gonzalez remembers.
Then the call-ups stopped coming altogether.
Earlier this summer, out of nowhere, word got out that Gonzalez was defecting to the U.S. A one-time switch to another federation you're eligible to represent is permissible so long as you haven't played for a senior team in an official competition. Gonzalez was added to the preliminary roster of the now-ongoing Gold Cup by Klinsmann's successor, Bruce Arena, just a few weeks after he first contemplated the change.
While the switch was in the works, Gonzalez apparently still wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do, according to ESPN FC's Tom Marshall. But U.S. Soccer reportedly had a written commitment from Gonzalez in hand.
On June 29, the T's were crossed and the I's were dotted, and Jesse Gonzalez, the starting goalkeeper for one of the best teams in Major League Soccer at just 22, was tied to the U.S. national team forever, a fact made clear when he was called up for the knockout round of the Gold Cup earlier this week.
Quietly, the United States Soccer Federation and the Federacion Mexicana de Futbol Asociacion have been waging a battle for control of the last great untapped well of soccer talent in the Western Hemisphere—and maybe beyond that. The Mexican-American.
These Mexican-American teenagers are tugged back and forth between the two youth national team programs, negotiating their own preferences, those of their families, the clearest path toward a viable career in soccer and a conflicted patriotism for two nations.
That makes for some quick turns of direction by top players.
Consider the story of Ulysses Llanez of the L.A. Galaxy academy. Llanez scored both goals for the under-14 U.S. boys national team in a 2-0 victory over Real Madrid in 2015. The next year, he scored twice in a 2-1 win over England. Six weeks later, he accepted an invitation to a Mexico under-16 training camp. By June of this year, he was back in the U.S. program with its under-16s.
"He's an elite player," U.S. Soccer youth technical director and under-20 head coach Tab Ramos says. "We talked to him before he went to Mexico. He decided anyway to go to Mexico and see what that was like, and he's decided now he only wants to play for us. I think that's a great sign for us. We'd rather they don't go in the first place. But the pull, either from the family or the feeling of playing for Mexico, is something that we sometimes have to allow time for."
If that's true, Efrain Alvarez may need more time yet. The 15-year-old is one of the top prospects in North America and has been starring for the Galaxy's under-16s since he was 13. Last year, he scored four times in three games for the U.S. under-15 national team on a trip to Argentina. And then he flipped to Mexico's under-15s, where he remains.
Those switches are increasingly common, with players bouncing back and forth in pursuit of their best prospects. Edwin Lara, who was named one of the 60 best young players in the world by the Guardian in October, left the U.S. under-17 residency program for Mexico. Abraham Romero did the same. Brandon Vazquez did the opposite. And Sebastian Saucedo started with the U.S. under-20s, left for Mexico and returned.
"These kids are very young and looking to probably make decisions that they can't completely wrap their heads around," Galaxy general manager Pete Vagenas says. "I don't know of any kid this young that has these opportunities or options who is ready to commit themselves one way or the other."
At the root of the conflict is the Mexico federation's policy to actively recruit in the United States. With an extensive scouting apparatus for its youth national teams, the FMF collects multiple reports on potential additions. When three or four positive reports come in from different scouts or coaches, the player gets the call. And with scouts permanently based in Los Angeles and Texas, where much of the country's Mexican-American population is concentrated, the FMF has a fertile field from which to choose new players.
"To us, it's not so [much] a concern where they're born," says Dennis te Kloese, director of Mexico's youth national teams. "If they have the Mexican nationality and are eligible to play for Mexico, they're candidates to represent our national teams. This is one of the unique situations in the world where so many people of one nationality live in another country. Of course, to the Mexican federation, this is an opportunity."
Ramos, Te Kloese's counterpart on the American side of the border, contends that the departures have been largely insignificant. "Although we've lost a few on the youth national team, they usually either return or they end up not making either [senior] team," Ramos says. And he adds that the U.S. under-20, under-17 and under-16 youth national teams have all beaten their Mexican rivals this year.
Ramos acknowledges, however, that the program has gains to make in this now-coveted market. "Slowly, as a U.S. national team and as the U.S. Soccer Federation—although we're starting to get more and more bilingual—the more we can penetrate into the Latino market, the better it's going to be down the road," says Ramos, who was born in Uruguay and played briefly in Liga MX. "We have to define ourselves as a country that believes in its Mexican-American players, who grow up in Mexican families, speaking Spanish. That's important."
In the meantime, however, players pursued by both federations are left with an agonizing decision. Senior U.S. national team midfielder Joe Corona, a Los Angeles-born 27-year-old who has made his pro career with Tijuana in Mexico after a college stint at San Diego State, remembers the struggle well. With Mexican and Salvadoran parents, he was eligible for three national teams.
Corona was put on the preliminary roster for the U.S. by national team manager Bob Bradley for a friendly in the summer of 2011—against Mexico, no less. But Bradley was fired before the game, and Corona wasn't called up. He later got an invitation to Mexico's under-22 team and played in one game before accepting a call-up to the American under-23s. Finally, he was cap-tied to the U.S. when he appeared in a World Cup qualifier for the Americans in late 2012.
"It can be a process, something you have to think a lot about," Corona says. "Mexico were the first ones to call me. I was looking for an opportunity, and it was a country that I identified with. In the end, when I saw the interest of the United States, I was very happy for that as well. I just identified more with the United States."
Corona, at least, had the benefit of being 21 when the two federations pursued him. But many players aren't yet old enough to drive when they have to work through this decision. "All these young kids coming up and having to decide to play for whichever country," Corona says. "Hopefully they make the right decision and don't regret it in the future."
To fully understand the tussle over youth national team talent, one needs to look at the club scene, where Mexican teams have been mining for talent up north since the beginning of the 21st century. The battle for dual nationals is, in some ways, a byproduct of Liga MX's zeal to find the best talent in the region, since most clubs work with a financial model that depends on developing young players and selling a few of them off.
And when you trace that process back to its source, you wind up at Alianza de Futbol Hispano.
Once an adult soccer tournament in the United States, Alianza partnered with Fox Deportes in 2008 for a sort of game show, El Sueno de Tu Vida—the dream of your life. The program included a series of tryouts, with the object to produce a team that would take on a professional side in a game. "We learned that, wow, there was a lot of talent," says Joaquin Escoto, director of Alianza de Futbol Hispano. "We were getting thousands of players showing up to try out."
The interest from Mexican clubs to attend these scouting events in the U.S. was immediate and transformed Alianza into a national circuit of open tryouts for anybody who thinks they have professional potential. This year, 11 American cities will host Alianza events, registering some 10,000 participants drawn from more than 1,000 cities, according to Escoto. Overwhelmingly, the attendees will be of Hispanic-American lineage, because Alianza only markets to those communities, though the tryouts are open to anybody. After the regional tryouts, a national showcase follows that will bring together the 54 best players at the end of the year. Every Liga MX team is expected to show up, as is the FMF, with Te Kloese himself participating in coaching.
"We've been working with Liga MX clubs and Major League Soccer and now the [second-tier] United Soccer League," Escoto says. "But what we've found in the past 10 years is that Liga MX teams are way more aggressive in recruiting than a USL or an MLS club. They just want to find the best talent. They don't care if it's in New York or Oaxaca, Mexico. If he's good, they want him. That's why clubs like Pachuca and Chivas are very aggressive. That's their business now: find the best players and sell them."
A huge part of Alianza's appeal, and influence, is that it's free both to players and clubs, covering its costs through a portfolio of major sponsors. It even pays for its finalists to travel to Los Angeles for the national showcase. That allows it to tap into the vast numbers of teenagers who have been priced out of the elite American youth game in which—unless you happen to live in the vicinity of an MLS academy and are lucky enough to have snapped up one of the precious few spots—families spend thousands of dollars a year just to play.
Young Mexican-American players are exceedingly attractive to Liga MX teams because they are free, well prepared for life in Mexico and usually have, or can easily acquire, a Mexican passport. That means that, so long as they're registered with the FMF before their 19th birthday, they don't count against the league's stringent cap of nine foreigners in the matchday squad for senior team games in Liga MX.
This has created a steady stream of Mexican-Americans into Liga MX academies—albeit one that has been slowed now that FIFA is increasing enforcement of its rule against cross-border transfers of underage players for non-family reasons. (In response, some Mexican teams have opened academies stateside. Tijuana has five.) Last year's Alianza resulted in 33 finalists being offered 116 invitations for further tryouts with 14 Liga MX clubs. Currently, about 30 Alianza alumni are active professionals in Mexico.
Several MLS teams scout Alianza as well. But U.S. Soccer does not. "The quality of the players that Alianza has is just not good enough," Ramos says.
Yet of the American-born dual nationals that wind up with Mexico's youth national teams, many first pass through the pipeline to Mexican clubs. In all, dozens or maybe hundreds of them—it's impossible to nail down the number, as there's almost no reporting of such moves—have migrated south for an opportunity. There, playing in the national youth leagues for Liga MX academy teams, they easily catch the attention of the FMF scouts.
When he became the first American to lead Liga MX in scoring in 2010, at the beginning of a six-season tour through six Mexican clubs, Herculez Gomez appeared to be a pioneer. But at every club for which the Los Angeles-born son of Mexican parents played, he was surprised to find that several fellow Mexican-Americans already played there—on the youth teams. "That really blew me away," Gomez recalls. "I had no idea there were so many kids like me littered all throughout the Mexican Republic."
Soon enough, his clubs began using Gomez as a recruiter to talk to young Mexican-American players who were juggling offers from multiple Liga MX teams. He remembers meeting one from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, while he was at Tijuana. The boy had offers from 13 Mexican clubs and none from an American team. "Like him I've met 40 or 50 others—at least," Gomez says. "[Mexican clubs] understand the U.S. market more than U.S. Soccer does with the Chicano athlete."
Mexican clubs are also structured to include a greater volume of talent than their U.S. counterparts. With big live-in academies, budgets for large batches of young signings, no requirement to put players on senior team rosters and no competition from the college ranks, Liga MX teams have an enormous advantage over those in MLS, which can only roster 30 players with professional contracts between their senior and reserve teams and must pay a salary of at least $53,000. That may not sound like much, but it's far more than most players get on their first professional contract in Mexico.
"An MLS team has to make an investment in a player," Ramos says. "When the players go across the border to Mexico, they may be playing for $200 or $300 a month. There may be hundreds of them, but at the end of the day, how many of them have enough quality to land a real contract in Mexico? You can probably count them on one hand."
That doesn't stop teams from Mexico from continually fishing for talent, even for players already signed across the border.
"We are a target," says Fernando Clavijo, a Uruguay native who is technical director of FC Dallas. "There's teams in Mexico scouting every single tournament we have in the United States. We need to be aware. They put in an incredible amount of effort to locate those kids."
Ramos argues that the sheer number of players heading south distorts what's really happening on a youth national team level. "Not every player that goes across the border is good enough for our national teams," he says. "I'm sure we make mistakes and there are players that can slip. Although that rarely happens, it can happen. That doesn't mean we're missing players that we're just not giving contracts to."
Yet some talent does get away. And when you're already living and playing in Mexico, it isn't much of a leap to accept a Mexico call-up over a U.S. one. It's often a matter of being first to the player. And that game becomes a lot easier when you have the advantage of proximity.
It's a numbers game. The more of the elite talent you capture and retain, the greater the chance, 10 years from now, that you'll have kept the biggest stars on your side of the border.
It's possible we never hear of Llanez again, or maybe he'll be the global superstar the U.S. has craved. Alvarez might be a bank teller in a decade, or perhaps he'll be the man to finally push Mexico past the quarterfinals at a World Cup. The only way to find out is to convince them to keep putting on your federation's jersey.
Which makes it sort of remarkable how civil this ongoing border war over young soccer talent is. There seems to be a universal understanding, in both camps, that they are dealing with teenagers who often are ill-equipped to make decisions that could very well shape the course of their nascent careers.
"The boy has to feel completely comfortable with our program, but it's also possible that he's more at ease with U.S. Soccer's," Te Kloese says. "We've never forced anyone to play for Mexico. It's a matter of feeling. We've experienced plenty of times that a player was strongly attracted to the Mexican team, partly because of our results at the youth level."
Mexico won the under-17 World Cup in 2005 and 2011 and was runner-up in 2013, while the U.S. has never placed higher than fourth, in 1999. El Tri has twice medaled at the under-20 World Cup, which the Americans have yet to do. And Mexico won the 2012 Olympics, an under-23 tournament the Yanks have missed altogether in three of the last four editions.
Despite their differences, both sides say they try to be honest in what they can offer. "We tell them about the style we like to play and why we feel the player would benefit from being in our program," Ramos says. "Other than that, there's not really much more that you can tell the players. ... You don't want to say something that's not true. At the end of the day, whether it's a 15- or 16-year-old, even if you're saying 'You're really important to our program,' it's not like you can make any promises and say, 'You're going to be one of the best players on our senior team.'"
Playing future aside, the decision can be cultural as much as it is pragmatic. "There's a certain pride when children play for Mexican teams or national teams that has to do with a homesickness," Te Kloese says. "So what we see when we're interested in a player is that often the first option is to see if he can play for Mexico."
Ramos echoes this sentiment. "That Mexican-American who grows up in a Mexican family in the U.S., who has been watching Spanish TV growing up, whose parents speak Spanish at home, whose family only watch the Mexico games—that player is likely to want to please his family and play for their home country, although he may be born here," he says. "That's something we can't, at times, control. And we have to respect that. That's a feeling and not so much taking facts side by side."
Most of the time, the final choice is forced by circumstance.
In Jesse Gonzalez's case, it was all fairly simple. Mexico stopped calling. His agent wondered if he might do better if he made a switch. National team appearances can vault club careers, which pay the bills and the mortgage. "My agent was asking me what I was thinking," Gonzalez says. "I wasn't getting called up."
So he talked to Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio. And then he talked to Arena. The former told him to be patient—Gonzalez is young for a national team goalkeeper, after all—and the latter told him more or less the same. And then Gonzalez, who insists he saw the goalkeeping competition on either team as more or less the same, decided to switch allegiances.
He figures Arena is more likely to rely on players from MLS than Osorio is. And that's likely to be true for the bosses' inevitable successors, with Mexico managers historically slow to warm to new players active in MLS. "I'll be seen more," Gonzalez says. "I think the U.S. is going to value me a lot, which is what I like about the U.S."
What Gonzalez also likes about the U.S. is that it's more likely to let him play. That realization is the final stop on the long and agonizing road of a player with two identities. "It's something great to have," Gonzalez says. "But at the same time, it's tough as a player. Because when that decision comes, it's really a hard choice."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports and occasionally writes elsewhere, like the New York Times. He has covered the global game for a decade. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.