Moving forward without Gonzalez
It has been a long time since a top player has filed a one-time switch to leave the program but Jonathan Gonzalez did just that on Monday when he opted to play for Mexico. After representing the U.S. team at the U-14, U-16, U-18, and U-20 levels, he has decided his future will be with Mexico. ASN's Brian Sciaretta gives his thoughts
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedOVER 10 YEARS AGO NOW, Giuseppe Rossi ended all speculation that he would play for the United States when he formally became cap-tied to Italy. Just two years later, Neven Subotic caused even more of a calamity when he filed a one-time switch to play for Serbia.
January 08, 2018
January 08, 2018
Rossi’s loss was huge at the time although he was always clear that he wanted little to do with U.S. Soccer. Still, his decision to celebrate especially hard after scoring a goal against the United States at the 2009 Confederations Cup was a painful image for U.S. Soccer.
To date, however, the loss of Subotic was far worse. Whereas Rossi ended up injured for most of his career, Subotic actually played for the United States at a major youth international tournament (the U-17 World Cup) and went on to start in the UEFA Champions League final.
On Monday, Univision reported that rising Liga MX star Jonathan Gonzalez would leave the U.S. set-up for Mexico. Gonzalez, 18, just completed his first professional season in the 2017 Apertura for Monterrey where he helped the club finish first in the regular season before losing to Tigres in the final. He later won Copa MX in December. Afterward he was named to the Liga MX Best XI for the Apertura.
Unlike Subotic, Gonzalez was born and raised in the United States and his involvement with the U.S. program is substantial. He was a regular with the U-14 team, the U-16 team, and the U-18 team. Just last year he made the U-20 team for 2017 World Cup qualifying while playing up an age group.
In July, he gave an interview with American Soccer Now where it was revealed by Alianza de Futbol that he wanted to play for the United States to the point where he turned down Chivas de Guadalajara to start his career because the club’s policy would have prevented him from representing the United States.
Starting in August, however, his career really began to take off at Monterrey at the same time the United States national team began to tank. Still in late September, United States youth technical director Tab Ramos told ASN he talked with Gonzalez regular and also that then-U.S. manager Bruce Arena had reached out to Gonzalez.
Weeks later, the U.S team failed to qualify for the World Cup and Arena promptly resigned. A November friendly against Portugal was run by interim coach Dave Sarachan and the roster featured many young players but Gonzalez was not among them.
In December, Gonzalez told Soccer America that neither Sarachan nor his staff reached out to him ahead of that November friendly. There are also reports that in December, U.S. Soccer reached out to Gonzalez with little success. Despite that, Gonzalez was even nominated by the federation for its Young Male Player of the Year Award.
All this was taking place with the backdrop that Mexico’s federation was pursuing Gonzalez to file a one-time switch (as required due to his appearance in a U-20 World Cup qualifier). Last week Mexico’s federation even met with Gonzalez at his house to convince him and his family.
And it worked.
It is impossible to know how significant of a blow this is for U.S. Soccer. Gonzalez is still a newcomer to the professional ranks but he has passed every test so far with flying colors.
The consequences are unknown but the optics are terrible for U.S. Soccer. Mexico is its biggest rival and this was the biggest battle to date for a Mexican-American dual national. In the end, Mexico made the United States look unserious.
For all the talk about the United States failing to call Gonzalez ahead of its November friendly, the truth is that Mexico had been ignoring Gonzalez for his entire life until four months ago. El Tri only came around once he had broken through at a high level. Despite that, Mexico had little problems wooing Gonzalez away from U.S. Soccer.
The United States was involved with Gonzalez consistently and constantly from the U-14 team through the U-20 team. He was identified correctly by U.S. Soccer at an early age and brought along fairly aggressively. Still a teenager, Gonzalez would have been brought into the full U.S. national team early in 2018 (he was called up in January camp).
This just shows how difficult it will be for U.S. Soccer to compete with Mexico for players both federations want. Of course, many Mexican-Americans have played for the United States team. Some have won Gold Cups, some have started in World Cup games and Carlos Bocanegra was even a legendary team captain. But how many were truly wanted by Mexico? No one at Gonzalez’s level.
While this was just one player’s decision, it gives a lasting taste that Mexico will win the hearts for most elite Mexican-American players who have a serious choice. Gonzalez was “all-USA” for years but when Mexico showed interest, his U.S. allegiance crumbled like a house of cards in a tornado.
In the face of a failure to qualify for the World Cup, losing out on a key player who has represented the United States for years to an archrival makes the program’s difficult state even harder for American fans to take.
Of course, in the face of losing Gonzalez to Mexico many American fans are going to be looking for someone to blame. It seems to be a natural reaction. In this case, it seems to be unwarranted.
Obviously all eyes point to Sarachan for the November friendly but it is hard to think that swayed Gonzalez.
Sarachan is an interim coach who is trying to keep the program moving forward. Everyone knows he will not be with the U.S. program for long and will amount to nothing more than a minor footnote in the history of the team.
Should Sarachan have called up Gonzalez? Absolutely. It was a mistake.
But Gonzalez knows that the November friendly is meaningless. He would be extremely shortsighted to allow the decision of an interim manager in a minor friendly drive him to permanently turn his back on a program that he’s been involved with since the U-14 level.
Most players have to go through a snub at some point in their careers. What would it say about Gonzalez if the minute he gets a minor snub he bolts for Mexico who has snubbed him his whole life until recently?
It would either mean that he’s extremely thin-skinned or that he just really wants to play for Mexico. He knew U.S. Soccer remained interested. Chief Scout Thomas Rongen, who has recruited more dual nationals to the U.S. program than anybody, told CBS on Monday he went and visited Gonzalez at his home three times the past year.
Of course the U.S. program is at a low point, but Gonzalez surely knows that better days are on the horizon for the U.S. program. He knows better than everyone that the top young American players coming up are strong. He has played with the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Christian Pulisic. Still, he has elected to not be part of that future.
For American fans, it is easy to blame someone. It’s harder to accept the reality that despite identifying an elite player and spending years developing him, the minute he is faced with any sort of adversity he is willing to leave the program for an archrival.
When given the choice of blaming Sarachan or accepting the reality that the U.S. team is simply second fiddle to many dual nationals of historically stronger soccer nations, blaming Sarachan amounts to taking the easy way out. Maybe there is no one to blame. This was Gonzalez's free choice he made the minute Mexico finally stopped ignoring him.
The solution is simply to win and consistently go farther in major tournaments than Mexico. If the U.S. team can do that, players will eventually want to play for that team. Dual nationals should not need special coddling or treatment.
While the U.S. team has beaten Mexico from time to time, it has never consistently been better. For that reason, Mexico is still the team of choice for those players who have the option. Winning changes that.
The sting of losing Gonzalez will linger but eventually subside. The U.S. is not short on talented young central midfielders right now with Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Keaton Parks, Kellyn Acosta, and more leading the way.
As with the loss any dual national, U.S. fans would better be served letting this go soon and not lettting it linger like Subotic or Rossi.
What makes international soccer different and special when compared with club soccer is that in the international game, players and fans share a common bond of a crest that is tied to that country. Gonzalez no longer shares that bond. It will be far more rewarding for the fans, especially now when the team has hit a low point, to win and rebuild the team with players that want to wear the shirt and who are not willing to quit on the program the way Gonzalez did.
The U.S. team will move forward and better days will be on the horizon. Most importantly, it will move forward with players that are willing and happy to represent the United States internationally, for better or for worse.