Featured, FIFA, January 2018, U.S. soccer, USMNT

On Jonathan Gonzalez’s Decision to Play for Mexico, and US Soccer’s Systemic Failure

Jonathan Gonzalez earned Liga MX Best 11 honors this year, helping CF Monterrey to the Mexican Cup.

Neil W. Blackmon

Mexican-American Jonathan Gonzalez, a compact locomotive of a defensive midfielder and budding star at Liga MX’s CF Monterrey, confirmed this week multiple reports that he will file a FIFA one-time switch and opt to play for Mexico as a senior international, rather than the United States. Gonzalez, the son of hard-working Mexican-American immigrants, was raised in California and had played as a youth international for the United States.

Gonzalez posted a statement regarding his decision on his Twitter account this week:

In losing Gonzalez, the United States Soccer Federation suffers the latest in a string of collective failures, one that will hurt the Americans in nearly every competitive match they play over the next decade. It didn’t have to be that way, and the wound is self-inflicted.

Worse, however, is the reality that the loss of Gonzalez will resonate across the American soccer landscape, a sonic boom unpeeling whatever shroud of secrecy remained regarding American soccer’s worst kept secret: the United States Soccer federation, as well as nation’s burgeoning professional leagues, either don’t value Latin-American soccer players, neglect Latin-American soccer players, or can’t effectively find or access them.

Gonzalez was long-considered a lock to play for the United States, both because of his experiences with the red, white and blue as a youth international and due to his own sense of cultural connection with the nation he called home as a child. Former coaches and players close to the Los Rayados midfielder confirmed this week that Gonzalez had longed to play for his home country, with this tweet by former USMNT midfielder Hugo Perez, who has known Gonzalez most his life, particularly instructive.

As the US scuffled through World Cup qualifying, ultimately failing to reach this summer’s World Cup Finals in Russia, Gonzalez was in the midst of a marvelous season at CF Monterrey last year, helping the side win the Mexican Cup and well on his way to Liga MX Best 11 honors. All the while, the US were hemorrhaging qualifying points, and Gonzalez was waiting on a phone call that, as we know now, never came.

There were, without question, opportunities to call Gonzalez into the fold, and well-before the ill-fated and much-publicized omission of Gonzalez from an experimental, largely young group of Americans that fought to a hard-earned draw in Portugal last November, after World Cup qualification was lost.

The US rode one teenage star throughout the Hex, but for whatever reason, never called on another budding one.

Indeed, Christian Pulisic, just seven months older than Gonzalez, had been with the US national team since the subHex qualifying round, starting- and starring, along with Sacha Kljestan- in an emphatic win over, ironically, Trinidad and Tobago, that sent the US through to the Hexagonal round.

And lest you think I’m comparing Gonzalez to Pulisic, I’m not, and wouldn’t- they play different positions, for one. And there’s obvious merit to the claim Germany is a better professional league than Liga MX.

But the US plodded through qualifying largely on the backs of players from MLS, an inferior league to Liga MX. What harm could a chance have done?

Pulisic was playing influential soccer in the Bundesliga and Champions League throughout the Hex, but as the Americans searched for answers in the midfield behind him, beyond captain Michael Bradley, it’s hard to make a colorable, let alone a sensible, argument that merely including a rising Liga MX star like Gonzalez would have put the kid in the position of Donnie in the Big Lebowski, confused and out of his element.

Liga MX is as good a league as exists on the CONCACAF continent, and Gonzalez was blossoming into a dynamic player as the US tried- and failed- to qualify. A call-up wouldn’t have just made plenty of sense; it was merited.

Bruce Arena pled soccer’s version of the Fifth Amendment last autumn, citing “a lack of time” as his justification for not calling in a series of new faces ahead of the vital final four American qualifiers that began last Labor Day weekend. That left players like Schalke’s Weston McKennie, Vitesse by way of Chelsea defender Matt Miazga and Gonzalez on the outside-looking in, at least for the autumn.

Arena, for better and for worse, has always preferred to manage within his circle of trust, and privileged known commodities over unproven, but known talents.

But in the aftermath of the American qualifying fiasco in Couva, Arena, a New Yorker with a Long Islander’s come what may candor, make striking remarks when he said that he was planning on making “significant changes” and “improvements” to the US roster ahead of the World Cup. Gonzalez, presumably, would have been part of those plans but it was the underlying confessional arrogance to the remarks that was and is fantastical: if Arena knew the team needed “significant changes” and “improvements”, why not make them in order to qualify? Why wait? Especially when the largest- perhaps the only- reason Arena was given the gig in the aftermath of Klinsmann’s second-cycle flame out was to assure US qualification for Russia. Arena left his cards on the table, and the US will be left home this coming summer.

But even if qualifying wasn’t the right option for integrating the 18-year-old Gonzalez, certainly a Gold Cup would have been.

Juan Carlos Osorio, the Mexico manager challenged with guiding El Tri through a fifteen match in fifty days grind last summer, used the Gold Cup for that singular purpose- bringing in a squad almost entirely comprised of Liga MX starters like Gonzalez.

Arena stayed local as well, calling in a team largely comprised of MLS players, including a large collection of young players with limited caps such as Kelyn Rowe, Justin Morrow, Kellyn Acosta and Seattle Sounders starlet Jordan Morris. Arena also tapped multiple Liga MX’ers- Joe Corona of Tijuana, Paul Arriola (then also with Tijuana) and Omar Gonzalez of Pachuca- for the tournament- a tacit recognition that he was aware those players were available for selection and willing to call them in. But somehow, again, Gonzalez was left on the sidelines.

Liga MX players from a variety of countries were invited. Why wasn’t Gonzalez? After all, he was establishing himself as a starter when the tournament was being played…

After the US won the Gold Cup and failed to qualify, there was one final chance.

TYAC reported ahead of November’s friendly with Portugal that CF Monterrey confirmed to TYAC that it had been contacted by US Soccer ahead of the Portugal friendly, clearly to inquire about Gonzalez. The club expressed concern about the travel demands ahead of the Liga MX playoffs, which would begin on the backend of the American friendly and camp, but ultimately, as was confirmed again this week, left it up to US to contact Gonzalez. According to Gonzalez and his camp, the call never came.

Gonzalez, posing here for a picture with the US U20s in 2017, badly wanted to play for his country. The phone didn’t ring.

And yet, as Kevin McCauley wrote in this fine piece about Gonzalez’s decision at SB Nation, it appears Gonzalez was understanding about the situation in November as well. He just wanted a sit-down, a lunch, a conversation, a phone call- something- that told him the United States knew how well he was playing in a good league, appreciated him, and wanted him to remain in the fold.

That call never came. Meanwhile, according to a source at his club, Mexican coaches were consistently around, watching and welcoming, and, as Paul Kennedy reported this November, that presence and pressure only escalated after the US bombed out of the World Cup.

From that point forward, the writing was on the wall, but, according to this explosive interview with Allianza de Futbol co-founder and longtime Gonzalez family confidant Brad Rothenberg,  conducted by Mike Woitalla at Soccer America, Jonathan was, as late as New Year’s Eve, still torn as to who to choose and what to do, despite being continually spurned by the United States.

Ultimately, Gonzalez decided on Mexico, who have shown continual interest in his development over the past year, and who, unlike the United States, can offer Gonzalez the chance to play in a FIFA World Cup this summer.

Life is short- if we’re healthy or simply fortunate we witness maybe 20 in a lifetime, and even less that we remember. As an active footballer, the number is closer to three or four, with rare exceptions like Rafa Marquez or DaMarcus Beasley getting more opportunities. It’s the greatest showcase in sport, and a place to turn the riches of a pro footballing contract into generational wealth. It’s hard to blame someone for choosing the nation that offers that platform, and even harder to blame them when the pull of home is equally compelling from either nation.

Had he chosen the United States, Gonzalez would have offered immediate relief at a defensive midfielder position largely unsettled since the 2014 World Cup, and the thought of him playing alongside budding Schalke star Weston McKennie for the better part of a decade and providing the US the type of spine they’ve lacked since the days of Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien.

Instead, due to their own apathy, ignorance and prideful commitment to the status quo, the US will have to hope Gonzalez isn’t instrumental in handing the United States more heartbreak at the hands of rival Mexico, who have earned a result in every competitive match they’ve had against the United States since 2013.

The loss of Gonzalez, however, represents more than simply the failure of the US Soccer Federation and its coaching and scouting leadership apparatus to secure the services of a blossoming young player who wanted deeply to play for his home country.

It’s a signifier for a more systemic issue that infects the game in America like a plague. The United States Soccer Federation, as well as professionally-run and local academies, state associations and local schools, don’t value Latin-American players. They don’t scout them thoroughly, don’t travel enough to see them play, and don’t invest in building lasting relationships with their families and in their communities. They don’t care enough about increasing access for marginalized and underserved populations, and don’t want to or don’t prioritize the work necessary to raise money to build fields, train coaches and referees, and help subsidize the infrastructural improvements needed to improve access. And until they do, as former US Men’s National Teamer Herculez Gomez tweeted this week, this will continue to happen.

It isn’t just Gomez who feels this way.

“The reality is there’s such an emphasis on Europe and on development academy and youth club culture and on the tunnel of what’s next in professional clubs that Latino communities, and Mexican-American kids, come last,” a source who asked only to be identified as an “American and high-level MLS front office executive” told me Thursday.

“There aren’t enough people inside the federation that care and there aren’t enough people in the established soccer communities that care. So, you get this cycle where an entire population is underserved and neglected, and Liga MX scouts and coaches know it, and spend money filling the gaps. It has to change,” he said.

Already, there are those in the soccer culture writ-large that are characterizing the general response to Gonzalez’s decision as an overreaction. Players have opted to play for other countries before, they say, and the US has managed, dinged but durable, in the aftermath.

Others have said “Let him go,” if he doesn’t want to play for the US what can we do. This was, at least under one reading, essentially the response of US legend Tab Ramos, who coached Gonzalez and is among those considered to be an option for the vacant US managerial position.

Let’s be clear about two things, though.

First, Jonathan Gonzalez felt American, based on every source spoken to for this story and others, and based on his own statements about how much he enjoyed playing for the US as a youth international. This wasn’t about feeling more Mexican.

Second, to not use the loss of Gonzalez as a vehicle for change is to miss an opportunity, and one that couldn’t come at a more appropriate cultural moment in the United States.

As Gonzalez was playing for US youth international teams in a variety of competitions, a businessman named Donald Trump was beginning his Presidential campaign with a speech that characterized the Mexican people as bringing drugs, bringing crime, and being rapists.

As Gonzalez was deciding what to do, the country he grew up in was engaged in a mighty debate, an intense, ideological, often unkind but ultimately important dialogue about what it wants to be. At the center of this debate is a discussion about immigration, and what to do and how to treat the underprivileged, marginalized and those at the periphery in the United States.

In the Senate and in the public at-large, there is a boisterous, contentious and vital debate about what to do with the so-called “Dreamers”, a group of $800,000 mostly Latin-American immigrants who came to the United States as children illegally, through no fault of their own. As Gonzalez was deciding what to do, Congress was deciding whether a compromise could be reached, where the Dreamers were saved in exchange for the billions of dollars needed for a border wall.

And even as this is written, in the aftermath of Gonzalez’s decision, Mr. Trump, now President, today called Haiti and African nations “shitholes” and pleaded for more white, European immigrants from places like “Norway.”

Meanwhile, the departing US Soccer President has compared the contemporary pay-to-play structure to a piano lesson, a perhaps unintended, but certainly tone-deaf comparison that likely resonates in the travel team tournament parking lots, filled with Lexuses and BMWs and an overwhelming number of white faces.

How does that change? When will the US commit to more access for underserved, marginalized populations? When will people decide this is the right thing to do, an inclusive and important thing even if the net result will simply be that more kids play soccer, even if for just a moment, for fun, for a few seasons?

If you think the country can have a serious debate about immigration while soccer, the preferred sport of contemporary immigrants, whistles and kicks the can down the road, think again.

The time for that discussion is now. The time for solutions is now. The time for change is now. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of all who love the game.

In the end, the loss of Gonzalez is a brutal one for a national team searching for answers. But the US won’t play a meaningful match for at least two more years. They’ll adjust and move forward, as much as it hurts.

More than anything then, the loss of Gonzalez could and should be a long overdue moment of self-reflection, a cold water in the face wake-up call where we as a burgeoning, complicated and diverse soccer culture seize the chance to become better and do better.

The alternative is this keeps happening, and down the road, maybe what happened in Trinidad and Tobago last October happens again too.

Neil W. Blackmon is the co-founder and Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon