Jonathan Gonzalez chose Mexico but life goes on for young U.S. squad
Before there was the saga of Jonathan Gonzalez, there was the tale of Jesse Gonzalez.
The highly touted FC Dallas goalkeeper started for the Mexico national team at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He appeared in one match for the country's U-23 squad but not before spurning a call from then-United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to join the American camp. Despite growing up in Texas and playing a starring role in Major League Soccer, Gonzalez looked destined to remain with El Tri. Until he didn't.
Gonzalez failed to make Mexico's 2016 Olympic roster, a slight that reportedly set him thinking about altering his future. Conversations ensued; new head coach Bruce Arena put Gonzalez on the preliminary 2017 Gold Cup roster, the goalkeeper filed a one-time switch and joined the squad for the knockout stage. With Tim Howard and Brad Guzan aging out of contention and no clear heir apparent behind them, Gonzalez very well might find himself between the posts for the red, white and blue soon. (However, he has yet to feature for the senior and wasn't called up for the upcoming Paraguay friendly.)
What happened with both Jesse Gonzalez and Jonathan Gonzalez is important because they are individuals and their individual stories matter. But the larger point is that neither choice should be seen in a vacuum. They're simply some of the most prominent recent battles in a larger fight for talent between the two closely linked countries.
Of course, it still stings that Jonathan Gonzalez decided in late January to transfer his allegiance to Mexico. It hurts to "lose" the 18-year-old, Liga MX Apertura Best XI midfielder to the U.S.'s biggest rival, both emotionally and on the field. He could be a fixture for the next decade although he also might not be. He's only 18 after all, so projecting ahead is dangerous. In the short term, he'll have to beat out Jonathan dos Santos, Hector Herrera or Andres Guardado for a starting spot in coach Juan Carlos Osorio's three-man midfield.
The loss is also a blow to the U.S. Soccer Federation, an organization that's reeling from the immense failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, an acrimonious presidential race and growing dissatisfaction from some sections of the grassroots fan base. Gonzalez choosing El Tri has become a symbol, both correctly and incorrectly, of all the problems with the organization that resulted in the bitter disappointment of not reaching Russia.
"It feels like it's a culmination of everything that every Mexican-American fan has been saying about why they support the Mexican national team," Sergio Tristan, founder of the U.S.-based Mexican national team supporter group, Pancho Villa's Army, says. "Where are the opportunities for us? Where are the opportunities at these American clubs?"
"It's a thumb in the nose to the U.S. fans," Tristan says. "We know Gonzalez is not Ronaldinho. But he's a good player. After losing Jesse Gonzalez, and [Club Leon goalkeeper] William Yarbrough, it was nice to rub it in, especially after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. Two wins in a row are nice."
Yet life goes on. There's always another game to play, another camp around the corner. This week, while Jonathan Gonzalez joins Mexico for friendlies against Iceland and Croatia, the Americans gather in Cary, North Carolina, for a match against Paraguay. The camp features rising stars like the New York Red Bulls' Tyler Adams and Schalke's Weston McKennie, two players who would have battled Gonzalez for a spot in Russia. MLS-based Marky Delgado, Cristian Roldan and Wil Trapp are also in the midfield mix.
It's a squad full of youth, which makes sense because the Americans don't play a competitive match for more than a year. There are 13 players aged 22 or younger and 15 veterans of Development Academies, a sign that the U.S. system can produce talent. Tim Weah, fresh off his first appearances for PSG's first team, is getting a look. Manchester City signing Erik Palmer-Brown, the captain of the 2017 U-20 World Cup team, is as well, along with left-back of the future Antonee Robinson, Levante's Shaq Moore and Andrija Novakovich, who has managed 18 goals in 29 matches for Telstar.
Their presence won't make any U.S. supporter forget about Gonzalez, especially if he appears in Russia, but he's a single player, a skilled teenager who could have been a strong part of the U.S.'s future. He wouldn't, however, guarantee any level of success. While freaking out about his choice provides some catharsis, the hype about the on-field impact he would have had is almost certainly overblown.
Still, the Jonathan Gonzalez Experience should set off alarm bells at the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago. The way he was lost -- the miscommunication, the overconfidence, the bad feelings that persist -- is a real issue that needs to be addressed.
"If U.S. Soccer doesn't change how it funnels kids into the national team program, I think you'll see a lot of players taking advantage of that dual citizenship, not only because right now Liga MX is a higher-paying league, but because once you are in Mexico's home country, they will target you if you're a good player and throw everything at you to try to get you to play for Mexico," Tristan says.
The U.S. spent decades losing to Mexico on the field, finally succeeding in leveling the competitive balance only over the past decade or so. But if lessons aren't learned and courses aren't adjusted in the wake of Gonzalez's pledging allegiance to Mexico, the tug-of-war for players might become as one-sided as those on-field blowouts of the 1970s.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.