The United States Soccer Federation must better engage with America’s Latino population and hire coaches who “think outside the box” if it doesn’t want a repeat of rising star Jonathan González’s defection to Mexico. That’s the takeaway from those who say the sport’s governing body is “arrogant” and ignoring the country’s ever-growing Hispanic population.
González, an 18-year-old American-born midfielder who never quite fit the US youth system, dreamed of playing for the US. The feeling wasn’t mutual. He wasn’t included in an experimental US squad that faced Portugal in a friendly last November – the Americans’ first run out since their World Cup qualification failure – nor the current national team winter camp. No big deal, maybe. Except in Mexico, González is considered an exceptional talent.
The backstory reads like a love-gone-wrong romance novel. He appeared for US youth teams but was hardly a central cog. He did, however, stand out at the 2013 Sueno Alianza, a free-to-enter talent contest pitched at Hispanic players in the US that is heavily scouted by Liga MX clubs.
While US Soccer remained unconvinced of his quality, González received offers from 13 Liga MX teams after his Sueno performances. He signed with Monterrey where he climbed the youth ladder and made his senior first team debut in July last year alongside veteran internationals from Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia.
It got better. Monterrey finished Liga MX runners-up last season, the kid from California was named to the league’s Best XI – and the US had a new star. Except January kicked off with González, who says he only spoke “so-so” Spanish when he arrived at Monterrey, saying he wanted to represent his parents’ birthplace – Mexico – in international soccer (this is not a decision motivated by a chance to go to the World Cup this summer: Gonzalez is unlikely to win a starting spot).
“Jonathan wanted to continue playing for the US until the day before he chose Mexico,” says Brad Rothenberg, founder of Sueno Alianza. “His heart was in the United States. He grew up here. He’s American. I’m angry that we have an arrogant approach to Hispanic players and it was reflected by [US Soccer youth coach] Tab Ramos who said ‘If you want to play for the United States, it has to be in your heart’. What Mexico did was convince the kid by appealing to him directly.”
Mexico’s bid to woo González was led by face-to-face conversations with technical director Dennis Te Kloese and phone calls from national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio. The US? Not so much. According to Rothenberg – whose father Alan was President of US Soccer from 1990 to 1998, Chairman of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee, and a major force in founding Major League Soccer – the González experience is evidence of a bigger issue: US Soccer systemically ignores Hispanic talent in favor of a Eurocentric outlook.
“We all still have our our biases and preferences and the majority of the people who run the federation at the top and all the way down to the local level in each state are disproportionally Eurocentric and Anglo,” Rothenberg says.
“Until we expand the definition of what great play looks like we are not going to be able to have the experts to find these kids in the Latino community or other minorities like African American communities. There are just not enough coaches or administrators who have enough appreciation for that.”
Rothenberg’s view is backed by former USA international Herculez Gomez, a member of the USA’s 2010 World Cup roster and history-maker for winning MLS Cup with Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and Seattle Sounders in 2016 and a Primera Division championship with Santos Laguna in 2012.
“It’s not that the US lost Jonathan González, it’s that a player like Jonathan González had to look elsewhere for opportunities,” says Gomez. “He was discovered by [former US youth coach] Hugo Perez but there are not enough coaches like Perez who think outside the box. We have been conditioned to believe that proper football is British and that proper football commentary is British. But this is not the world we live in. There are different worlds.”
Rothenberg claims the USSF has failed to meet the needs of a growing Hispanic population across the US. The 2010 US census found the country has a Hispanic or Latino population of around 50.5 million people – around 16% of the total population – with approximately 60% of that number claiming Mexican ancestry. Those figures were almost double the 2000 census numbers.
“For years [USSF] moved forward as an Anglo organization because that was the bulk of the participation base,” Rothenberg says. “It was highly Eurocentric and Anglo. Since the mid-1980s we had a huge influx of Latinos, they have become citizens, it has changed the country, and US Soccer hasn’t adapted.”
That failure to adapt, according to critics, includes fueling a talent pipeline from middle class suburbs at the expense of less-wealthy inner-cities and minorities. Rather than participate in expensive pay-to-play academies, kids outside suburbia play for high schools and in church or other independent leagues that fall outside established US Soccer pathways.
“We are very much a suburban sport,” says Gomez, who grew up in Las Vegas. “The reach is not long enough. A lot of these [talented] players are not in the same system. US Soccer needs to get into the communities. This is not just about Hispanic or Latin American players. It is about African American players. It is about minorities.”
An irony is that while soccer in America is growing – especially thanks to the Hispanic market – that doesn’t necessarily translate to a connection with American soccer. The sport can eat itself. While Hispanic youth player development appears to be a challenge for US Soccer, Soccer United Marketing – a company owned by Major League Soccer – has tapped into the commercial benefits of the Hispanic market and owns the US marketing rights to the Mexico national team. SUM includes USSF president Sunil Gulati on its board and its president is Kathy Carter, a candidate to replace Gulati as US Soccer boss in an election this February. SUM profits when Mexico’s national team is promoted in the US.
“Part of the problem is that these [Mexican-American] kids don’t give a crap about US Soccer,” says Rothenberg. “US Soccer should be going deep into these communities to show these kids that US Soccer cares about them. End the arrogance. US Soccer thinks these kids should come to them because the US is in their heart but it is a two-way street.”
The battle for young hearts and minds is also influenced by Mexican soccer’s presence on US television. Te Kloese, who played a key role in luring Jonathan Gonzalez south of the border, says playing for a Liga MX team is a dream for many American kids.
“The Mexican league is one of the most popular on TV and big on the internet and social networks,” he says. “For a lot of [American] kids, Mexican clubs are aspirational.”
Te Kloese says Liga MX clubs aggressively scout in the US. Mexican-American communities can be talent mines. From his home in Mexico City, Te Kloese sees geography as one of the big challenges for US Soccer – the country’s huge size and population is underserved by professional teams and professional academies.
“The United States is so big and the distances from where you live to where there might be a professional academy makes it hard to draw the best talent to the academies,” he says. “They are working hard but the youth football structure with independent leagues, one thinking one direction and another thinking another direction, makes it hard for people to put their finger on exactly where to develop and where to put money.
“You have well organized [youth] clubs but you have to pay a lot of money for that and then there is an option to play in high school and in college which has a whole different approach. Then they have the MLS academies to groom players to a professional league and then there are all sorts of different professional leagues.
“It is quite a challenge for the people who are in charge of youth development to unite all these aspects. There are so many different opinions and politics and interests in American soccer that it is difficult to get everyone on the same page.”
Herculez Gomez agrees: “This is a big country,” he says. “There are 50 states but there aren’t 50 MLS clubs and there are not 50 MLS academies.”
For Te Kloese, the combination of US dysfunction and talented dual citizens is an advantage other countries can exploit – especially if Hispanic players are shunned by the US system. Gonzalez will not be the last player to cross the border.
“Cases like Jonathan have existed both on the women’s side and the men’s side,” Te Kloese says. “You can’t walk away from the fact that there are so many Mexicans living in the United States and there is an opportunity to represent both countries. It is also a unique case with the United States where there are so many people of a certain nationality that have two options to choose. I don’t think anywhere else in the world there is a similar option.”
Rothenberg says Sueno Alianza would be out of business if US Soccer was doing a better job in engaging Hispanic players. He adds that if US youth teams were performing consistently at the highest level, Gonzalez’s decision to play for Mexico may not have been an issue. And if the US had qualified for this year’s World Cup, Christian Pulisic would be the talk and not a kid from California who could be on a plane to Moscow – with Mexico.
“US Soccer never saw him play enough,” says Rothenberg of Gonzalez. “We thought it was sufficient to have Tab Ramos text message him. That wasn’t enough.”