Alex_mendez_-_asn_top_-_isi_-_2018_u-20_celebration_-_roy_k_miller Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos
Player spotlight

Mendez hopefull for deep run in Poland ahead of tough Ukraine opener

Alex Mendez is a core member of the United States U-20 World Cup team and the reigning U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year. Now he will attempt to lead the U.S. team to a long run at the U-20 World Cup. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with the Freiburg-based attacking midfielder.  

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 21, 2019
12:00 PM
EXPECTATIONS ARE high for the United States U-20 national team ahead of its World Cup opener on Friday against Ukraine. The U.S. team is in a challenging group but its chances of advancement will come down to its attacking ability in the middle of the field – which has always been the team’s strength.

SC Freiburg midfielder Alex Mendez, 18, has been at the core of the team’s attacking midfield all cycle and it was his performance during the CONCACAF Championships that lead to him being named both the player of the tournament and U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year for 2018.

But for young players, it is all about showing consistent progression and building off previous accomplishments to achieve new heights. With that, the 2019 U-20 World Cup will give Mendez the chance to take a step from 2018. For Mendez, it is not just him but many on the U-20 team are in the same boat.

“I think we have a strong team,” Mendez told American Soccer Now. “When looking at the roster, I think we have a pretty good chance of going really far in this tournament. We all have that same desire and that winning mentality. There are so many players that want to achieve the same thing. It's a great thing to have on a team. This team really has that, the grit, and the desire to win everything.”

In addition to Mendez, he will be joined by PSV Eindhoven’s Richard Ledezma and FC Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal in the attacking midfield. Mendez spent a lot time with both players but his chemistry with Pomykal was obvious during qualifying and while injuries have prevented Ledezma from playing with the team since last summer, Mendez thinks his addition into the World Cup team will be important.

“We all have the same playing style,” Mendez said of his partnership with Pomykal and Ledezma. “We're simple but attacking players. It's an automatic connection because we all have the same ideas and we're all on the same page.”

“I think a lot of it comes down to that off the field we get a long really well so I think that is the reason why we have good chemistry on the pitch,” Mendez added. “For us attacking and being aggressive, it is more of a team thing because it all starts from the press. Because of the press, our midfielders and centerbacks are often the first to win the ball. The ball then comes to us and our first thought is to look forward.”

Ramos has admitted that working with Mendez and Pomykal during this cycle was a priority to have them move from mere skill possession players and into players who could make plays that win close games. In the CONCACAF Championships that was clear as both took their games to new levels and responded to Ramos.

Specifically, Mendez scored eight goals in that tournament including the best goal in the tournament against Costa Rica and both goals in a 2-0 win over Mexico in the final.

“One of the knocks I have in academy games is that you have a lot of guys who just keep possession and play the ball sideways and backwards,” Tab Ramos said. “This is why at the U-20 level I pull guys aside like Paxton [Pomykal] or Alex Mendex and say: it's great that you can keep the ball but how about now making plays? I need you in the final third to make plays that win games or create dangerous situations whether its passing, shooting, getting fouled, or creating corners. Make plays.”

And since that CONCACAF tournament which also served as World Cup qualifying, Mendez believes that the team has only continued to grow. In March, it played a pair of friendlies where it drew France 1-1 and defeated Japan 2-1.

“The qualifiers were a boost in confidence,” Mendez said. “We knew we were capable of doing it. But after the fact we did it, you can see that the team is a lot more confident going into the Spain camp in March. We also felt good and played against France, and even though they were a good team we got the result.”

But for the core group of the U.S. U-20 team, the World Cup is only the start of a process that could see them also quickly transition to the U-23 team and possibly the full national team if they progress with their clubs.

Now at Freiburg, Mendez began adjusting to its U-19 team this season and next season he hopes to continue the ladder. But in the fall, he is hoping to take part in helping the United States qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2008. U-23 head coach Jason Kreis will be with the U-20 team in Poland scouting the squad during the group stages.

“I think every player has that in mind,” Mendez said of the Olympics. “Obviously, we're thinking about what is at hand, and that is the World Cup. But everyone has in the back of their head what is next. I know we're all capable of reaching that next level and it comes down to who the coach thinks are best for his style.”

Mendez indeed has a lot on his plate and is credits U.S. Soccer and Tab Ramos for a lot of the opportunities he’s been given in recent years. A dual national with Mexico, he is often asked about his preference over which country to represent and Jonathan Gonzalez’s defection last year from the United States to Mexico has only increased the spotlight on the potential battle between the two nationals for top Mexican-American players.

“I am happy where I am at right now,” Mendez said of playing for the United States. “U.S. Soccer has done great things for me and I am happy right now.”

The U-20 World Cup will probably be just the start of important international games for Mendez with the United States. But moving forward under future coaches with possibly Kreis or even Gregg Berhalter, he believes Ramos has helped lay a solid foundation.

“He's done great,” Mendez said. “He has given the players enough space to do well for themselves - but he also doesn't let anyone get too comfortable because the next guy is always up. That is just how it works. He's a great coach and with everything he does, everything makes sense. I think what's he's doing is great.”

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