Analysis

A long-term loss: How U.S. Soccer’s blunders led to Jonathan Gonzalez choosing Mexico

ISI Photos-John Dorton

A teen phenom and longtime U.S. youth player looks headed for El Tri, despite always wanting to play for the United States.

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Before January, we knew the United States men’s national team program was stuck in an awkward transition period. The extent of the damage from missing the 2018 World Cup would be determined in part by how U.S. Soccer reacted.

We might have wondered what, exactly, was leaking slowly as weeks melted into months with no particular direction? A new men’s national team manager. But a president needed choosing, someone to then select a manager who would then plot a course to get this old clunker out of the repair shop.

Being adrift is never ideal, but the timing was fortuitous enough, literally years ahead of the next meaningful match. Stockpiles of young talent meant there was time to be nurtured, cultivated, and stitched together into a (hopefully) formidable unit.

Well, that changed slightly on Monday for one emerging talent, following reports that 18-year-old midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez would, indeed, choose to represent Mexico over the United States.

And with it, harsh reality came crashing in: This was a major blunder by U.S. Soccer. A failure at the most basic level during this transition period has apparently exacted a high cost.  

This is the type of fallout -- losing a potential centerpiece for several cycles to come -- which compounds a short-term problem into one with lasting implications. And it leaves us all to wonder with alarm: What (or who) else might be fumbled away during this (now clearly damaging) period of clumsy transition?

What happened with Jonathan Gonzalez

Gonzalez grew up in northern California and began his professional career through a less conventional, although not unheard of, route through Mexico.  

Regard for this young, midfield ball hawk, still just 18, rocketed skyward in fall 2017 as he assumed a place on Monterrey’s industrious team. Rayados finished as Liga MX runner-up and Gonzalez, having displaced Mexican international Jesus Molina in Monterrey’s lineup, was named Liga MX Best XI, no small feat.

Gonzalez wasn’t a fellow who fell through the cracks in the U.S. development pipeline; he has represented the land of his birth at Under-17, U-18 and U-20 levels. He was with the U.S. through and through. Still, whispers of a potential switch were in the air through the fall – and should have been setting off alarm bells.

Gonzalez revealed in an interview with Soccer America that he was never contacted last November before a U.S. friendly against Portugal. “I wasn’t called in, in November. Personally, nobody came and talked to me and let me know about that friendly. I just wasn’t called in,” he said.

Then came the hammer blow: According to Univision Sports, Gonzalez has decided to represent Mexico. He could be called as early as a Jan. 31 friendly and must, to complete the process, file a one-time request for a switch from FIFA.

U.S. Soccer's obvious failure

Everyone at U.S. Soccer looks bad here, and there’s just no hiding from it. The lack of bigger-picture thinking is stunning, and it speaks to the quandary which surrounds U.S. Soccer, which won’t have a new leader -- and, thus, direction -- until a new president is elected in February.

It is perfectly reasonable that Gonzalez wouldn’t be summoned for a friendly with such personally inconvenient timing; he had an important role in the ongoing Liga MX playoffs.

But here’s where things go seriously sideways for U.S. Soccer: Nobody said, ‘Let’s get in touch with Jonathan Gonzalez’? It’s not asking too much for someone, somewhere along the organizational chain, to think a little about asset protection.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Sarachan (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Here was an emerging U.S. international, talented and intriguing – and anyone could see all the moving parts involved. We could all envision Gonzalez, in the months ahead, beginning to form important partnerships with other talented midfielders of his generation. How would he look and function in some midfield arrangement that potentially included Tyler Adams, Weston McKinnie, Christian Pulisic and Kellyn Acosta, all age 22 and under?

We may never know – because everyone dropped the ball.

Gonzalez did not necessarily need to be called in for that game against Portugal; he simply needed to be contacted. He needed assurance that he wasn’t forgotten. That’s it!

Calls or visits would have been better, but even an email would have likely sufficed. ‘Hi, Jonathan. We see you! We’re so excited that you’re in the Liga MX playoffs! Can not wait to see you in a U.S. camp soon. Now go get ‘em!’

There’s a history of this. Not extensive, but enough. New Jersey born-and-raised Giuseppe Rossi once picked Italy over the United States. Neven Subotic spent some formative years stateside but chose to represent Serbia, land of his birth. There was outreach in both cases. Whether it was enough, we can and have debated. But that’s all water under the bridge. History will see Gonzalez as a bigger blunder; he was, as it looks now, fished right out of the U.S. pond by the Americans’ biggest rival. Of equal concern? He may not be the last in this situation. There are increasingly a number of talented players who could represent either the U.S. or Mexico. How will recent failure affect their decisions? That’s the big picture.

How we got here, and what it means

Interim U.S. manager Dave Sarachan told Extra Time Radio in November that Gonzalez had certainly been discussed before selecting the roster to face Portugal. Sarachan said of the young midfielder: “We are keeping him on our radar, for sure. We know about him.”

Well, that’s one box checked. And one big one left unchecked. Because every national team manager for years, from Bruce Arena to Bob Bradley to Jurgen Klinsmann to Arena 2.0, has talked up the importance of communication. Via email, phone calls, personal visits from assistants or hand-written notes delivered by freakin’ carrier pigeon, if that’s what it takes.

And yet, no one spoke up in November on Gonzalez, an impressionable 18-year-old who was being fed a daily diet of Liga MX soccer and happy immersion in Mexican soccer culture. No one was vigilant on the watchtower here, no one to steer clear of complacency.

U.S. Soccer spokesman Michael Kammarman said Sarachan and U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos have both reached out to Gonzalez over the last few weeks, but with limited response. Gonzalez was invited in December to the U.S.’ January training camp, as well.

Kammarman said Ramos and other coaches in the national program have had good relationships and ongoing, periodic contact with the Monterrey midfielder, and that until quite recently, they had no reason to believe Gonzalez was seriously considering a change in national team affiliation.

Here’s the bottom line going forward: missing the World Cup sucks. We all know it. But the pity party is over and everyone in the U.S. Soccer establishment must deal with the consequences.

In real effect, World Cup qualification failure needs to be a short-term problem. That is, there aren’t meaningful matches to play (nor to sell to sponsors, nor to help build more supporters) until World Cup qualifying in 2020. In the big picture, this is an issue which U.S. Soccer cannot allow to become a catastrophe. Every long-term complication exacerbates U.S. Soccer's current situation.

A president will be chosen. A manager will emerge from there. Hopefully, that man or woman can map us out of the wilderness.

In the meantime, let’s hope the caretakers take better care.

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