Young U.S. hopeful Jonathan Gonzalez an outlier in Liga MX final
There will be more than a couple of interested parties in the Northern Californian town of Santa Rosa as Monterrey battle local rival Tigres for the Liga MX 2017 Apertura title on Thursday and then Sunday.
The town and club Atletico Santa Rosa -- where Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez started his career -- will be hoping to witness one of their own play an important role in a Clasico Regio that has gripped Mexico.
U.S.-Mexico dual-national Gonzalez left Santa Rosa as a 14-year-old to join Liga MX club Monterrey, and while the now-18-year-old has admitted how difficult it was to be away from his family, playing in front of 90,000-plus over two games in the coming days suggests the risk is paying off handsomely.
It's been a remarkable rise for the U.S. youth international, who was on Bruce Arena's radar before the veteran coach lost his job. Gonzalez worked his way up Monterrey's youth system, playing 37 games in the Under-17s but only 29 matches in the U-20s league, before being shunted into the first team by Rayados coach Antonio Mohamed, who handed Gonzalez his Liga MX debut on July 21 against Morelia.
The player hasn't looked back since and has become the regular starter in the holding midfield role for Mohamed. Perhaps a measure of just how well he has done to keep his starting place is that experienced Mexico international midfielder Jesus Molina has been mainly on the bench this season, with his hopes of making the World Cup deteriorating due to the lack of playing time.
Now comes the much-anticipated final, in which Gonzalez is an outlier when you analyze the two sides.
The average age of Monterrey's team without Gonzalez is 29.5 years, while Tigres' starting side has an average of 29.6 years. Gonzalez is almost seven years younger than the next youngest player in Monterrey's team -- 25-year-old Colombian international Stefan Medina -- and nine years younger than Tigres' youngest -- El Tri international Javier Aquino.
The Californian is also the only player likely to start for Monterrey to come up through the club's youth system, with Tigres being able to say the same only about Jesus Duenas. In a Monterrey XI made up of one Mexican, five Argentines, three Colombians and a Uruguayan, Gonzalez's background and age stand out. Indeed, the tendency towards foreigners -- Gonzalez is counted as a Mexican even though it looks likely he'll represent the United States at full international level -- has been one of the talking points ahead of the final.
It all begs the question of just what Mohamed has seen in Gonzalez to keep him in what is a key role for Monterrey?
Frankly, there isn't anything that immediately jumps out to make highlight reels of games, or be turned into GIFs or YouTube compilation videos. Gonzalez doesn't get particularly high scores on statistics websites. He's had a 79.7 percent pass completion rate so far this season, taken six shots -- zero of which were on goal -- and made no assists. At 1.75 meters and 62 kilos, according to the Liga MX website, physically he's very normal, perhaps even on the shorter and lighter side if anything for a defensive midfielder.
But the two elements of Gonzalez's game that are more subtly outstanding are the simplicity to which he reduces the complex nuances of the position and his sheer work rate.
What underpins that simplicity is an awareness of space, a calmness in possession way beyond his 18 years and, obviously, very good technical ability on the ball, which you'd expect from a graduate of a good Liga MX academy. Gonzalez isn't rushing around anxious to always receive the ball, but fits in with the collective as the team plays out from the back, showing when necessary and seeing the second pass if there is another player open and in a better position. That game intelligence becomes especially apparent when you watch him live.
When Monterrey isn't in possession, Gonzalez can usually be found chasing and harrying. He's an aggressive player, not in the dirty sense -- he has only three yellow cards all season -- but in the sense that he presses with intensity and relentlessness.
Gonzalez's father said in a recent interview that he used to take his son to train on the beaches of Northern California, and the physical side of the midfielder's game is highly impressive. Gonzalez covered 11.3 kilometers per 90 minutes on average during the Liga MX regular season, which would place him within the top-10 players for the last Premier League season. Tigres' holding midfielder Rafael Carioca, in comparison, averages 9.5 kilometers per 90 minutes.
In the final, all that tenacity and intelligence will be put to the test. Gonzalez has a vital role to play for Monterrey. Rayados had the least amount of average minutes of possession per game in the regular season, while fellow finalists Tigres boasted the highest, according to the Liga MX website. The series is likely to see Tigres dominate possession and Monterrey attempt to hit rapidly on transitions after winning it back. Against Tigres, Gonzalez will have to protect a back four likely to face more pressure than it is accustomed to and when he gets the ball he'll need to use it wisely to spring the counters.
Keeping the emotions of the occasion under control won't be easy, either. The Clasico Regio and the intensity of a rivalry that is Mexico's best right now will be difficult to deal with for a teenager with just 24 first-team appearances.
But from what we've seen so far of Gonzalez in his introduction to life at one of Mexico's biggest clubs, the Santa Rosa natives watching can be confident that the midfielder will take it all in his stride.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.