Before you ask, let’s cut straight to the point: No, we don’t know who is responsible for Jonathan Gonzalez’s reported decision to play for Mexico. Not yet, anyway.
The 18-year-old Mexican-American – arguably the second-most promising male prospect in American soccer, and one who previously seemed committed to representing the United States – will reportedly file paperwork to FIFA to make a one-time switch of national team allegiance from the U.S. to Mexico. It’s a decision that will haunt U.S. Soccer for years to come.
But until Gonzalez himself explains it, or more details about his decision-making process are made public, there’s no way to accurately direct blame. There is blame to go around, certainly. But it’s unclear exactly where it should go.
That said, we can connect dots. Here’s a chronological timeline of Gonzalez’s soccer career, and the various events that may or may not have lured him to Mexico.
JONATHAN GONZALEZ, U.S. TO MEXICO: A TIMELINE
April 13, 1999 — Gonzalez is born in Santa Rosa, California, to Mexican-American parents. That will eventually make him eligible to represent either the U.S. or Mexico in international competitions.
May 7, 2012 — Gonzalez, still playing for his local youth club, Atletico Santa Rosa, is called into his first U.S. youth national team camp by U-14 coach Hugo Perez. He would become a mainstay with the U-14s, and later the U-15s, U-16s, U-17s and so on.
September 2013 — Gonzalez stars at the Alianza de Futbol national finals in Southern California, and receives tryout invitations from 13 Mexican clubs, plus MLS side Chivas USA. He’s also the subject of interest from both U.S. and Mexican national team scouts, and receives an invitation to train with Mexican youth national teams.
His father, Alonso, who emigrated to the U.S. as an 18-year-old, says at the time, “I’ll support him 100 percent in whatever direction he wants to go. He loves America and wants to play for the USA.”
Jonathan eventually decides to join Monterrey, and moves to Mexico as a 14-year-old to join the club’s youth teams. At Monterrey, one of the top clubs in Mexico, Gonzalez progresses, often playing with older age groups, according to Perez, his former youth national team coach.
February-March 2017 — Meanwhile, Gonzalez continues to make his way up the U.S. national team ladder. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos calls him into camp prior to the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which doubles as U-20 World Cup qualifying. Gonzalez makes the squad, and the U.S. wins the tournament, qualifying for the World Cup in May and June.
May 9, 2017 — Ramos leaves Gonzalez off his 20-man squad for the Under-20 World Cup.
July, 2017 — Gonzalez, previously playing for Monterrey’s under-20 side, is called up to the first team during preseason by Rayados coach Antonio Mohamed. Gonzalez impresses, and with starting midfielder Jesus Molina busy with Mexican national team duty, Mohamed tells Gonzalez he’s in line to start. He immediately drafts the 18-year-old into the lineup in a holding midfield role, despite Gonzalez playing more as a box-to-box or attacking midfielder at youth levels. (He was even listed as a forward on some of U.S. Soccer’s early youth national team rosters.)
Gonzalez makes his professional debut on July 22, and starts three of Monterrey’s first five games. He goes on to play 27 times in all competitions for the most expensive team in Mexico. Monterrey tops the Apertura table, and loses in the Liguilla final to Tigres. Gonzalez is named to the league’s Best XI.
Summer 2017 — Around the time of his Monterrey breakthrough, U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena asks for Gonzalez’s number and makes first contact with the player. Gonzalez has, seemingly, never wavered from his commitment to the U.S. Univision later reports that Arena was in “constant communication” with Gonzalez.
U.S. men’s national team chief scout Thomas Rongen later says he visited Gonzalez’s house three times during 2017. “He’s as American as they come,” Rongen says. “He would have liked to play for the U.S.”
August-September 2017 — Arena sticks with veterans for two World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras. The U.S. takes just one point from the two, meaning it will likely need four points from two October games to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Meanwhile, Mexico has secured qualification with a dominant Hex.
October 2017 — Arena again sticks with veterans, and “his guys” – even more so this time – for decisive qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. The U.S. beats Panama, but loses in Trinidad, and fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Oct. 13, 2017 — Three days after Trinidad, Arena resigns as U.S. head coach.
Oct. 24, 2017 — Rather than hire an interim coach, U.S. Soccer appoints Arena’s top assistant, Dave Sarachan, as its caretaker boss. Sarachan will lead the program into a November friendly against Portugal.
Nov. 1, 2017 — Reports have emerged that Mexico, amid uncertainty surrounding the U.S. program, has begun to push harder for Gonzalez, who has still never been called into a senior national team camp. Mexican national team director Dennis Te Kloese tells ESPN Deportes that he and the federation have been recruiting Gonzalez, but that the player remains committed to the U.S. “We know Jonathan, we have tried to invite him and involve him, but his wish has always been to play for the United States,” he said.
Nov. 7, 2017 — Sarachan calls in five uncapped players for the Portugal friendly, but excludes Gonzalez. Several reporters that cover the U.S. national team are told that the exclusion is due to Gonzalez’s club commitments. Monterrey has one game during the camp, and another a few days after the match in Portugal. There are also several other young midfielders, including Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, in the squad.
However, Gonzalez later tells Soccer America that U.S. Soccer never communicated that reasoning to him. “Personally, nobody came and talked to me and let me know about that friendly,” he said in late December. “I just wasn’t called in.”
December 2017 — U.S. Soccer remains in flux. USSF president Sunil Gulati has announced he won’t seek re-election. No interim coach has been named, and there is no timetable for hiring a permanent manager. Sarachan will lead January camp.
With uncertainty swirling north of the border, Mexico continues to recruit Gonzalez hard. Federation officials reportedly meet with him at his house. The full-court press – “timeless lobbying” – reportedly includes Te Kloese, national team manager Juan Carlos Osorio, Monterrey manager Mohamed and others. Additionally, his parents reportedly hope that he will pick Mexico.
Jan. 8, 2018 — Gonzalez reportedly picks Mexico.
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So where did U.S. Soccer go wrong?
Gonzalez slipped away incrementally. In the first place, U.S. Soccer doesn’t prioritize and cherish players like him. As Mexican-American and former U.S. national teamer Herculez Gomez recently told ussoccerplayers.com, Mexico “does a phenomenal job of recruiting Mexican-American talent in the United States. They see value in that player. … U.S. Soccer, they see value in that player when others see value in him.”
Gonzalez was one of the few players in those U-14 and U-15 camps who wasn’t part of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. He might have slipped through the cracks had it not been for Perez, his U-14 coach. (Perez, who has an outstanding track record of identifying talent, no longer works for U.S. Soccer.)
Secondly, top U.S. clubs never identified Gonzalez, which, in part, led him to jump to Monterrey. Had he spent his formative years in the U.S., he almost surely would have stuck with the USMNT.
If Arena was in communication with Gonzalez, the former national team manager isn’t really at fault. His roster decisions were understandable. Few were calling for teenagers to be called up for World Cup qualifiers at the time. It’s not fair to second-guess Arena now.
But the qualifying failure, and the subsequent fallout, have surely played a big role in Gonzalez changing his mind. Because there is no head coach to stay in contact with him right now. There is no president who’ll still be president in two months. There is no technical director.
It’s still absolutely inexplicable that Sarachan, or somebody else from the federation, failed to call Gonzalez ahead of the Portugal friendly. That’s both negligence and incompetence. But it’s unclear how much that had to do with the end result.
And then there’s the obvious: Mexico can tempt Gonzalez with the 2018 World Cup. And, in general, with a strong, stable national team program. He’ll reportedly be called up for a Jan. 31 friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina in San Antonio. And he’ll be given every chance to earn a spot in Russia.
All of that appears to have overridden his initial desire to represent the U.S. And, looking back on it, it’s tough to blame him.
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