Liga MX an increasingly attractive option for American players
SAN ANTONIO -- When the United States takes the field to face Mexico on Wednesday night, up to four of their number could be those who play their club soccer south of the border.
Ventura Alvarado, Greg Garza, Joe Corona and William Yarbrough are all part of Jurgen Klinsmann's squad -- Michael Orozco was originally called up before withdrawing through injury -- and each is benefiting from the coach's willingness to look beyond the U.S. for players.
Six months ago, few U.S. national team fans would have been aware of Alvarado. The Club America defender had only played four minutes in the Liga MX, a handful of Copa MX games and 21 matches on loan at second-division side Necaxa.
Now Alvarado is a Liga MX winner, a first-team regular for Las Aguilas and a fully fledged United States international, having debuted against Denmark last month. The next small step in his rise will come on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET) in San Antonio when he will likely see playing time for the U.S. against Mexico, his parents' home country and the nation in which he has lived all his adult life.
"It feels real good, I've worked a lot for this moment and I'm happy, but I want more, I want more minutes here [with the United States] and to be a starter," said Alvarado ahead of training in San Antonio on Monday.
Alvarado headed to Mexico City aged 15, leaving his family behind in Phoenix in search of making it as a professional. Now 22, he has succeeded in treading a path forged before him by the likes of Orozco, Garza and Corona as well as Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo, Herculez Gomez and Miguel Ponce.
"Especially with me being from [the United States], I felt a little related [to them]," added Alvarado. "I wanted the same story as them and was motivated for that."
How many more Ventura Alvarados, Michael Orozcos, Greg Garzas and Joe Coronas -- all of whom were named in the U.S. squad to face El Tri this week (Orozco has since withdrawn) -- are there in Mexico, bubbling below the surface at Liga MX youth teams?
U.S. Soccer hasn't responded at the time of publication to an ESPN FC request for a list of U.S.-born or eligible players currently playing in Mexico, but research carried out by this writer shows there are in excess of 50, including Alex Ramos, the son of U.S. men's U20 head coach Tab Ramos, who recently signed for Pachuca.
"I got here when I was 14," said Stockton, California, native Luis Tavares, now 16, who plays for Santos Laguna's youth academy and has been involved in Mexico's youth national teams. "There wasn't really much to think about with my family. This is what I was looking for and my family was looking for, for me."
Added Tavares' Santos Laguna teammate Jonathan Navarro, another 16-year-old from California who is a former member of the U.S. U-17 Residency Program, on making the move south four months ago: "It's a little bit difficult, but if I want to go pro, I have to get used to it."
For many Americans who already have family links to Mexico, as well as the geographical proximity and the money potentially on offer, moving south of the border seems to be an increasingly attractive option for young Yanks hoping to make a career in the game.
Tavares and Navarro made their way down to Mexico through the Alianza de Futbol Hispano's scouting program, which organizes trials all around the United States. The idea is startlingly simple. The group advertises its trials heavily in Spanish in Latino communities, pushes the fact that they are free and invites the Liga MX, Mexican soccer federation (FMF), US Soccer, MLS and college scouts to attend the final.
Last year, 7,000 players registered at 11 trials in different cities around the U.S. and were eventually whittled down to a group of 48, which then flew out to Miami for the final, according to Joaquin Escoto, director of media and marketing for Alianza de Futbol Hispano.
"We don't make money out of the players; we're in the sponsorship business," Escoto told ESPN FC. "Teams come to our event. All they have to do is come, sit in their chair with their clipboard and look at players."
For Mexican clubs already scouting the U.S. for players, it's an attractive proposition. The bigger Liga MX teams -- America, Chivas, Leon, Pachuca, Monterrey and Tigres, among others -- are there, with the process fueled by the fact that U.S.-born players with access to a Mexican passport (at least one grandparent) do not take up one of the five valuable foreigner spots each club is allowed in its Liga MX first-team matchday squad.
While there is a substantial amount of money and effort being invested in the academy system by MLS and US Soccer, there are growing pains. The academy system is limited due to the vastness of the country, and the evidence suggests Liga MX clubs are stepping in.
"We know one or two kids are going to be national-team level, seven to 10 kids will eventually go to Mexico to sign and 20 kids will get offers from teams to go down [on trial]," said Escoto of Alianza's talent base.
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Evidence of the program's success extends to the national teams of both Mexico and the U.S.
Coras de Tepic striker Julio Morales and Leon midfielder Dennis Flores were both spotted through the program, which received a huge credibility boost when the duo received call-ups to train with the full U.S. national team in Klinsmann's camp in January.
At the U20 level, Tigres' Jesus Vazquez has been involved with the U.S., while Pachuca's 15-year-old Berkeley, California, defender Edwin Lara is currently with Mexico's under-17 squad and looks to be headed to the World Cup in Chile later this year. Tavares has also played for Mexico recently, and Jonathan Gonzalez (Monterrey) has featured regularly for the U.S. U16s.
"Alianza has enabled us to be close to the talent; it's a great opportunity to detect it," El Tri's director of youth national teams Dennis te Kloese, has said about the program. In other words, attending is a no-brainer.
But it isn't just Alianza sending players south. Youngsters move from the U.S. to Mexico through agents, family contacts and random chance, like Leones Negros' Jesus Vazquez, who impressed while attending a trial during a vacation to Guadalajara.
Then there are Liga MX clubs' feeder teams in the United States, with Tigres, Pachuca, Monterrey, Pumas, Club America and Club Tijuana and others having official academies or links with clubs north of the border.
For example, Monterrey-based club Tigres UANL have five academies in Texas and one in Utah. Club Tijuana has focused its attention just over its border in Southern California and is looking for people to run franchises elsewhere in the United States.
Pumas goalkeeper Bernabe Magana -- from Ventura, California -- arrived via one of the university club's five academies in the United States, while Club America's Carlos Jaramillo came through that team's school in San Antonio.
"There are Americans that pop up everywhere now, which is awesome to see, but you never know where they come from, or how they ended up getting down here," San Diego native and Chiapas midfielder Gabriel Farfan, who tried his luck at Club America aged 20, before heading to MLS, told ESPN FC.
At Club Tijuana, seven players from the United States -- including six regular starters -- featured in the under-20 team's playoff run. At Leon, there are five players in the club's under-20s program. Even at Chivas, which prides itself on being all-Mexican and has a policy of not allowing players to feature for the other nations, goalkeeper David Silva and Luis Martir were in the U20 squad last weekend.
For Santos Laguna's Navarro, his future in the United States would probably have meant staying at US Soccer Development Academy De Anza Force, but he made to decision to move to Torreon with the full backing of his family.
"Me and my dad talked about moving and it's more competitive here; that's why I came," said Navarro.
Former Chivas USA midfielder Farfan watched Mexican soccer regularly growing up with his family, and after leaving a scholarship at Cal State Fullerton behind, headed for Club America following a call from the widely respected Jesus "Chucho" Ramirez, who guided El Tri to success in the 2005 U-17 World Cup.
Now 26, Farfan explained: "The people you meet in Mexico are amazing in terms of hospitality. I met some amazing people that made it feel like home. On the flip side, it is pretty tough living in the casa club [club house, where youth players live communally]. In Mexico, they have the mentality of earning your status as a professional player. Once you are starting out in the U17s and U20s, you are a nobody."
Farfan talks of long bus rides, very little luxury and not much extra money to do things outside the confines of the club. He points to Alvarado, his former roommate at Las Aguilas, as an ideal example of a U.S. player who persevered through the often difficult and testing process.
"Ventura got there when he was really young, he went through, stuck in there and played the U17s, segunda [third division], U20s, [made his] debut and now he's a starter," said Farfan. "Somebody like that, that's what players strive for, and now you're starting to see guys that are staying in the first division, and that's when you reap the rewards of a big paycheck."
And it doesn't go unnoticed.
"I look up to them," explained Tavares of the Americans who worked their way up Mexican youth teams. "I look at them and picture myself there. I know that it could happen; it is a reality and not just something that we look up to and can't happen."
Not that it's easy. Young players in Mexico receive a pittance of the riches on offer at the first-team level. Under-17s and under-20 players can make anything from 3,000 pesos ($200) up to 15,000 pesos (just short of $1,000) per month before debuting, when the wage often automatically increases due to contract clauses, according to ESPN FC sources. Farfan describes it as "more like a scholarship than a wage," with the club also providing food, travel and accommodation.
Farfan's fellow San Diego native Austin Guerrero plays in goal for second-division club Altamira in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. The 26-year-old says he came to Mexico five years ago to try out -- and eventually sign -- with Tigres because he felt it was "a better fit for my ability and size."
"I didn't move to Altamira for the money," said Guerrero, who joined Altamira in December 2013. "[It was for] experience ... It's not a gold mine, but I knew I could get playing time and it was a huge opportunity for me to grow as a player."
And while younger players like Guerrero come to Mexico because they believe it will help their development, it doesn't hurt one bit that the potential financial prize at the end is great, if they can hit the jackpot and make a Liga MX squad.
No official data exists on wages in the Liga MX, but according to a number of sources working in the Mexican game, an established player regularly making the first-team squad at a club can expect to make a minimum of $200,000 per year, including bonuses and after tax.
That's a conservative estimate, and a recent study put the Mexican first division's average annual wage at $389,000 (although it didn't include details of whether that was after tax), reporting the Liga MX as the tenth-highest-paying league in the world.
That average, according to research by ESPN FC, seems a reasonable estimate, although individual salaries depend on the size of the club, a player's experience, international caps, championship wins and the position they play.
The highest earners in Mexico make up to $2.6 million per year and a total of 20 make over $1 million, according to Forbes. In comparison, only 27 players in MLS made over the Liga MX average of $389,000 in 2014.
While some Designated Players in MLS make considerably more than any player in Mexico -- Ronaldinho is on $1.8 million, according to Forbes -- a player's earning ability is clearly greater in the Liga MX, even if the recent CBA negotiations between players and MLS has improved the players' situation slightly.
In simple terms, the Liga MX has become a nearby alternative to the U.S. system for young American players, and one that -- as Mexico's success at international youth level would suggest -- has made major leaps forward and continues to improve.
The fact that Klinsmann has called up every U.S. national to get regular minutes in the Liga MX into his squad at least once -- the latest being Mexico-born Leon goalkeeper William Yarbrough and Alvarado -- also gives the perception that the road to international soccer is clear for Americans moving to Mexico, at a time when the U.S. coach hasn't exactly been gushing in his endorsement of national team players moving to MLS.
Puebla striker and Bicentenario 2010 golden boot winner Gomez, whose career path saw him go to Mexico as a teenager, before moving to MLS and then coming back to break through with La Franja and feature for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup, believes dual nationals will play an increasingly important role moving forward both sides of the border.
"These are exciting times for the 'Chicano' player," he told ESPN FC recently. "I've always said that they are going to in some way mold the panorama of what soccer is on this continent."
So while the likes of Vazquez, Flores, Gonzalez and Alebrijes de Oaxaca's Juan Pablo Ocegueda may not yet be on the tip of the tongue of U.S. fans, all of them are on the youth conveyor belt in Mexico, attempting to emulate Alvarado, Orozco and the rest of the United States' Liga MX regulars.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.