Prized 18-year-old makes good first impression with USMNT as Mexico remains eager to secure his commitment

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For United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, next Wednesday’s friendly against El Salvador in South Florida isn’t just about getting in one final match in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out its schedule for most of this year.

It’s also about trying to show the eight players on his 22-man roster who remain eligible to compete for other countries that the best path toward their World Cup dreams lies with the red, white and blue.

Of those eight players, the most intriguing name to USMNT fans – not to mention supporters of Mexico, the Americans’ No. 1 rival – could be 18-year-old LA Galaxy attacker Efraín Álvarez. Álvarez was back wearing a USA crest on his chest Tuesday for the first time in more than four years; in 2016, the Los Angeles native left the U.S. youth national team program for El Tri, which he went on to represent with distinction at last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup.

“I guess you could take it one of two ways,” Berhalter said of Álvarez on a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday night. “You can say ‘he played for us and then he played for Mexico – we’re going to hold that against him and we’re never gonna call him in again and that’s that.’ But that’s not the way we look at it.

“You’re talking about really young players, you’re talking about players with cultural ties to other countries where emotions [are] involved,” Berhalter continued. “I can understand a player making a decision like that one time in his career. But for us, again, all it is about is saying ‘listen, there is an open door.’”

Efraín Álvarez (center) may have starred for Mexico at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup, but he's currently in camp with the United States men's national team. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)
Efraín Álvarez (center) may have starred for Mexico at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup, but he's currently in camp with the United States men's national team. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

This almost-exclusively MLS-based squad – European-based players and those with teams still competing in the MLS Cup playoffs were unavailable because of club commitments for next Wednesday’s contest in Ft. Lauderdale, which falls outside of a FIFA window for international matches and thus doesn’t require clubs to release their players anyway – trained for the first time Tuesday. Berhalter said he liked what he saw from Alvarez over the course of the domestic season, during which he made a career-high 16 appearances (six starts) for the hapless Galaxy.

“Efraín, what I’ve seen from him, is a maturity, a development as a player over this last year,” Berhalter said. “He looks much more physically fit. I think he was able to impact games for longer this season, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t play more.”

As of now, Álvarez isn’t eligible for next week’s match. Because of his competitive games for Mexico’s youth teams, he’d have to make a one-time switch of allegiance under FIFA rules. As those stand, there’d be no going back. Berhalter said Álvarez has not started the process of changing sides, although he appeared to leave open the possibly that it could happen before the Dec. 9 contest.

“He's not eligible to play today,” said Berhalter. “It's not necessarily that he can't play next Wednesday.”

Whatever happens, if Berhalter has any concerns about the 5-foot-8, 150-pound playmaker’s ability to withstand the ever-increasing physicality and breakneck pace of the senior international level, he wasn’t letting on.

“What I saw today in training is he’s a guy that you want to be around the ball,” he said. “Very creative player, has a good change of pace, very good in tight spaces. To me, it was a really interesting training to watch him, and I see in him an attacking midfield role or a winger role, even in the [striker role] because of the way we’ve been using a ‘9’ at times. So to me, he’s a quality player.”

He not the only one, nor the only one with options. Among the other dual national in this camp are Julian Araujo (Mexico), Ayo Akinola (Canada), Daryl Dike (Nigeria), Marco Farfan (Mexico) David Ochoa (Mexico) and Andres Perea, who played in two youth World Cups for Colombia. Perea joined the group after Frankie Amaya (Mexico) was forced to withdraw Tuesday after testing positive for COVID-19. (Like Álvarez, Perea would also have to officially switch before playing a game for the U.S.) Last month, Valencia’s Yunus Musah, who can also play for England, Ghana and possibly Italy, become the first player in USMNT history to make two starts before turning 18, which he did Nov. 29.

The U.S. has a long and decorated tradition of not just attracting but keeping such players. They haven’t lost many. Last year they got their biggest commitment yet when then-18-year-old Sergiño Dest, now a regular at Barcelona, turned down the mighty Netherlands to remain with the Stars and Stripes. Locking in Musah would be a similar triumph. He hasn’t committed to anyone so far, but the Americans do seem to have the inside track.

In fact, since Giuseppe Rossi (Italy) and Neven Subotic (Serbia) chose other programs more than a decade ago, the most notable defection (besides Alvarez) was Jonathan Gonzalez, who permanently switched to Mexico after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Gonzalez, still just 21, has made only three appearances for El Tri’s senior team since.

“They’re still young players, they still have the world in front of them,” Berhalter said. “All we want is to bring them into our environment and show them what our environment is about. And then it’s going to be up to them to make a decision in the end where they end up committing to. And we’ll be fine with that whatever decision they make.”

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