- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
The games between Mexico and the United States have emerged as some of the most heated on the soccer calendar. Who can forget Rafa Marquez’s harsh red on Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup or Oguchi Onyewu’s wild-west staredown with Jared Borgetti in 2005? Giovani Dos Santos’ wonder-goal at the Rose Bowl in 2011 was an instant classic — and then there’s that certain Columbus scoreline.
Yet it isn’t just on the pitch that the two sides compete. Off the field, the two federations are engaged in a battle for players that is reminiscent of recruiting in college sports. The process begins in a player’s teenage years and can extend into their 20s. Players have even moved back and forth between each country’s programs, causing euphoria or consternation within the fan bases of each country.
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Of late, this battle has reached a crescendo. In the past three months, LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo and Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa — both of whom were part of the U.S. U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — announced that they had filed one-time switches to represent Mexico. Earlier this year, Efrain Alvarez also selected Mexico after having risen through the Galaxy ranks.
On the other side of the ledger, FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, born in El Paso, Texas to Mexican parents, pledged his international future to the United States. He’s made an immediate impact, scoring three goals in his first four appearances.
After El Tri won the majority of competitive fixtures in the 2010s, the pendulum has begun to swing back towards the USMNT after victories last summer in the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup finals. Ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier (stream LIVE on ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), ESPN dug into the recruitment process and how both nations attempt to convince players where to pledge their international futures.
‘It all started with Dennis’
Dual nationals have long featured in U.S. squads — from Thomas Dooley and Earnie Stewart in the 1990s to more recently Fabian Johnson and John Brooks. Mexico, however, has been more reluctant to engage that player pipeline, preferring to rely on more homegrown talent.
As such the contest for dual nationals has appeared one-sided. Over the past decade, U.S. players with Mexican roots — like Carlos Bocanegra, Omar Gonzalez, Jose Francisco Torres and Herculez Gomez — have logged over 13,000 minutes and have played in at least one World Cup. By contrast, Mexico’s total is less than 1,500 minutes among the likes of Isaac Brizuela, Miguel Angel Ponce, Alvarez and Jonathan Gonzalez.
But that strategy shifted under Dennis te Kloese, who worked with the Mexico Football Federation (FMF) in a variety of technical roles from 2011-12 and again from 2014 to 2018. Speaking to ESPN, Te Kloese — now general manager for the LA Galaxy — pointed out that in the late 2000s, Liga MX teams started to be more proactive in their recruitment of American players with Mexican roots after they restructured their youth sides.
“That boosted some of the activities for the youth national teams in general, but also with some scouting activities in the U.S., and scouting in Mexico,” Te Kloese said. “There ended up some players in Mexico of Mexican-American descent, and they became candidates for youth national teams.”
Emboldened by the approach, the FMF expanded its reach into the U.S. by scouting different parts of the country, especially in the talent-rich area of Southern California.
“That all started with Dennis,” said Sacha van der Most, a scout based in Southern California for the FMF until 2019. “When he was at [former MLS club] Chivas USA, we went through the youth teams in the local area, looking for players who fit the mold of what [former club owner Jorge Vergara] wanted for that team, these Mexican-Americans.”
The approach has allowed Mexico to make further in-roads with young talent before they latch on with a club.
“In Los Angeles and Orange County, I get groups of young players with Latin American roots from all over,” said Van der Most. “But most of them are Mexican-American. You could build a powerhouse team with just local Mexican-American talent.”
If a player already has ties to the United States via their youth national teams, the federation will create a plan or presentation for them in order to detail the development they could potentially make with Mexico.
“We would identify them and bring them in, and all that carried over when Dennis took on his role with the Mexican federation,” added Van der Most.
Despite Te Kloese’s exit from the FMF in 2018 to take the Galaxy job, his modus operandi for scouting dual nationals has remained.
“[Mexico is] very aggressive,” said Joaquin Escoto, the executive VP of operations for Alianza Futbol, which holds scouting combines in the U.S. that are attended by Liga MX clubs. “They’re always comparing, ‘Is that goalkeeper better than the one I have in that age group? If so, I’m going to try to convince them to come play for us.’ And they follow up very well and very fast. If it’s a player they know they want, they don’t go dark for three months, six months. They don’t waste any time.”
Culture, language factor in recruiting pitches
When discussing the recruiting battles, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter assumes one thing. “Mexico’s going after every single player that has a Mexican and American passport,” he tells ESPN. “That’s the way we just look at the world.”
Therefore, Berhalter has two primary considerations in his pitches: the extent to which the player feels a connection to the U.S., and the ability to expose them to the environment in the U.S. setup.
“We’re going to be successful by not only the talent we have, but the connection we have to each other and the connection we have to representing our country,” he said. “The power of that goes a long way.
“So for me, it’s first about gauging where the player is at with the U.S., how he feels about the U.S., how he feels about the group. And then it’s about our environment, how can we create an environment that players want to be in and let the environment almost speak for itself.”
The U.S. has had some notable recruiting successes under Berhalter’s tenure. Barcelona defender Sergino Dest opted for the U.S. over the Netherlands, while Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah did the same despite England, Italy and Ghana as his other options. In both instances, there was consistent communication from Berhalter and his staff that helped establish, and then deepen, those relationships.
The same can be said about Mexico’s strategy. Hugo Perez, a former player on the USMNT’s 1994 World Cup squad and an ex-U.S. youth coach, has also spent time as a scout for Mexico. Now the manager for El Salvador’s national team, Perez said communication between players’ families and the FMF played a key role.
“They do a good job in communicating with the families. I think that’s a big difference,” said Perez about the FMF. “I don’t think, at least from what I remember after I left, I don’t know if anybody in the U.S. does that, or has the capacity to do that.
“But the language is a barrier sometimes when you go speak to parents.”
Those cultural and language connections pose a special challenge when it comes to recruiting Mexican-American players. Berhalter counters that USSF scouts and youth national team coaches are initially responsible for maintaining contact with dual nationals. As those players get older, it falls on Berhalter, USMNT general manager Brian McBride and USSF sporting director Earnie Stewart. Berhalter also feels he’s better served using other avenues by which to make a connection.
“I don’t even try to compete with that. It’s not our jobs,” he said regarding Mexico’s approach of highlighting cultural and linguistic commonality. “Our jobs are to show the player what we can offer them in our program, show them what our environment looks like in camp, show them where they fit in with what we do on the field. And then ultimately, we’re comfortable with their decision.”
While there remains criticism that U.S. Soccer doesn’t do enough to connect with the Latino community, Brad Rothenberg, who oversees Alianza Futbol as a VP with For Soccer Ventures, senses things are changing.
“I’d say it’s taken the [USSF] a long time to become a bilingual organization,” he said. “It’s not there yet, but at least they’re improving because some of their stuff is now in Spanish. That’s a very specific example of how Latino players and leagues feel disconnected from the federation. I think the grassroots license is now bilingual. And there’s some content that’s bilingual. It’s just took a while to get there.”
How Gonzalez’s Mexico switch upped the rivalry ante
What really announced Mexico’s arrival in the recruiting arena was its successful pursuit of midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez. The Santa Rosa, California native had represented the U.S. from U-15 all the way to U-20. After being left off the team that represented the U.S. at the 2017 U-20 World Cup, Gonzalez broke into the lineup at Liga MX powerhouse Monterrey in the summer of 2018.
When the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, there was an expectation that Gonzalez would be called up to the senior team. Caught in the transition period between full-time managers, Te Kloese pounced. He flew up to his hometown, met with Gonzalez’s family and convinced him to switch to Mexico.
“[Gonzalez] wasn’t really considered by the U.S. Soccer Federation at some point, so it wasn’t a very difficult recruiting trip to be honest,” Te Kloese said.
Gonzalez, who declined to speak with ESPN for this story, has seen his career for both club and country stagnate. He’s on loan at Liga MX side Necaxa and has only made a total of three senior appearances for El Tri. But at the time, Gonzalez’s decision sent shock waves through the U.S. soccer community, with considerable criticism aimed at the USSF for failing to do more to make sure a player remained within its system.
The experience with Gonzalez could been seen in the recent decisions of Alvarez, Ochoa, Araujo, and Pepi.
When swaying Alvarez, the FMF emphasized how his playing style would better mesh with Mexico than the United States, and how he could have success with El Tri when given the opportunity to play.
“With Efra, we talked a lot about his playing style, it’s just a very Latin, Mexican style,” said Van der Most. “The United States just doesn’t play like that, it doesn’t suit him. And he saw that early on. Ultimately, there were other factors of course — Efra really wanted to play for Mexico over anything else.”
But his recruitment wasn’t always pleasant. Cresencio Alvarez, Efrain’s father, complained that before his son made his choice, the constant badgering of both the national teams was “traumatizing.”
“One [federation] will call him, then the other one will, and then they’ll both call him at the same time,” he said in March.
Meanwhile, Ochoa’s switch cast light on the emotional strain players sometimes suffer when faced with such this decision. In his Players’ Tribune essay detailing the how and why behind his switch from the United States to Mexico, Ochoa detailed his struggle in fitting in with both groups. After experiencing both sides via youth camps, the goalkeeper remarked, “in the U.S., I was ‘the Mexican.’ In Mexico, I was ‘the Gringo.'”
This is why, according to Berhalter, he applies heavy doses of empathy when discussing a player’s future, even if they end up choosing Mexico. Berhalter went as far as to say how when Araujo told him of the decision to join Mexico, he was “proud” of the decision the player made. “There’s never bad blood,” he said. “I really feel for these guys.
“And all I want is for them to make a decision that they’re comfortable with. Because if we lose a player, a player you know, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that these guys know that we have their best interests in mind.”
That is not to say that Berhalter is completely reliant on a soft sell approach. Pepi mentioned that it was his conversations with the U.S. manager that helped tip the scales. While Pepi wasn’t made available for an interview, a source with direct knowledge of the recruitment process credited Berhalter with helping seal the deal.
“I think that the major thing, the difference maker was the fact that Gregg picked up the phone himself,” the source said. “Gregg expressed to Ricardo how much he wanted him in the program, how much he could use Ricardo in the near future. The credit here is Gregg. That’s really what it boiled down to.”
What Te Kloese and Berhalter insist on is that during the recruiting process, no promises are made in terms of playing time or participating in a particular tournament. It can also hurt a coach’s credibility down the road if a promise is made and not kept.
“There’s an equation, and the equation is happiness equals expectations over reality,” said Berhalter. “I could promise a guy or talk to a guy about his role. But if that doesn’t come to fruition in the future, eventually you’re going to have an unhappy player.”
But there is a sense that the U.S. isn’t emphasizing its success stories with dual nationals of Latino decent. Perez for one, is surprised that the U.S. doesn’t make use of their former national team players.
“Hire your ex-World Cup Hispanic guys who worked or played for the U.S.,” he said. “They should be ambassadors of the U.S. right now. That’s what Mexico does.”
A personal choice, or a business decision?
For the discussion of cultural connections, a key aspect gets lost in the decision — that of practical, on-field considerations. The U.S. depth chart at forward was wide open, allowing a path for Pepi to make an immediate impact, though Berhalter credits the player for taking his chance.
Mexico’s depth-chart issues at goalkeeper and right-back, respectively, could allow for Ochoa and Araujo to solidify those spots in the near future, but the competition won’t be easy.
“I do believe the growing parity [between Mexico and the U.S.] will be a factor for a lot of these dual national kids,” said Gomez, who played for the United States from 2007 to 2013. “How many of these kids at the end of the day, if they have equal love in their hearts for both countries, look at how each team is doing and make a business decision?”
Gomez’s ex-USMNT teammate Joe Corona counters that players will just go with their gut decision over cultural connections, depth charts or on-field success.
“The bottom line is, [players] go with their heart in the end,” said Corona, who was eligible to play for Mexico and El Salvador. “There are other factors, but most guys will ultimately pick the team they root for and want to play for the most.”
As a former member of the Galaxy, Corona played with both Araujo and Alvarez in 2019 and 2020. He recalls their experience of being courted by the Mexican national team as very different from his. In 2011, Corona was called into camp by the USMNT right before coach Bob Bradley was fired and the call-up fell through. Only then was he contacted by Mexico.
And despite one appearance for Mexico’s U-23 side, Corona said his decision to play for the U.S. was made before he had even stepped on the pitch.
“I had interest from one team and then it just snowballed,” he said. “I was very young — most guys are. It was a tough decision, but I’m very happy with the choice I made.”
Corona also offers some advice to the players who’ll have to make the decision soon.
“From my personal experience, everything happened so quickly to me,” said Corona. “I remember when I wanted to go pro, that was the last thing I thought about, choosing between Mexico and the USA. One thing that might help is preparing kids when they’re young. Letting them know they might have to choose from a younger age. It’s a good problem to have.”
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