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Liga MX 2018 Apertura: What you need to know before kickoff

Liga MX
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Juan Carlos Osorio has to choose: Mexico, U.S. or Europe?

Mexico
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 By Tom Marshall

Assessing where Jonathan Gonzalez fits in with the Mexican national team

Highly coveted American teenager Jonathan Gonzalez will file a one-time switch to play for Mexico after rising to stardom with Monterrey in Liga MX.

The news that Jonathan Gonzalez is planning to switch international allegiances from the United States to Mexico was the main soccer story on both sides of the border on Monday.

There was disbelief in the United States that an 18-year-old player who had been so firmly on the side of the Stars and Stripes just a few months ago had been successfully wooed by El Tri. And in Mexico, there was rejoicing over a player who burst onto the Liga MX scene in the second half of 2017 and made the kind of impact that is rare, especially for such a young midfielder.

It is a significant victory for the Mexican federation and one which begs a few questions.

Where is Gonzalez as a player right now?

The Santa Rosa, California, native established himself as one of Liga MX's brightest young players in the 2017 Apertura. Gonzalez always played above his age group for Monterrey's youth teams, but the way he made the jump up last July to being a regular starter for one of Mexico's two best teams at present was highly noteworthy. He took to playing in front of 50,000 in Estadio BBVA Bancomer like he was meant to do it and made the Liga MX 2017 Apertura best XI in the process. Even under the pressure of the Liga MX Clasico Regio final, Gonzalez stood up to the challenge.

Off the field, all indications are that Gonzalez is a grounded person. The midfielder still lives with the youth team players in Monterrey's training base, according to coach Antonio Mohamed, and is a high achiever educationally.

On the pitch, the amount of ground he covers per game would put him up with the best in the Premier League. Gonzalez is a modern type of midfielder, blending an ability to fly all over the pitch and force the opposition into mistakes with technical prowess on the ball and solid decision-making.

He also appears to have a manager at Monterrey who is determined not to let any of what he is currently living through go to his head.

"If [national teams] talk about him or want him it is down to what he's done on the pitch, I've told him he has to dedicate himself to playing" said Mohamed last week. "There is no doubt that he has his feet on the ground, he's humble and understands values."

That said, the news that he is available and likely to be called up for Mexico is going to change his life radically. There will be fame, criticism from U.S. fans, potentially a much more lucrative club contract, increased interest from Europe, and a move eventually outside the confines of Rayados' youth residence.

Jonathan Gonzalez has a bright future for both club and country.
Jonathan Gonzalez quickly worked his way up Monterrey's youth system to become a regular starter for Monterrey.

As Mohamed rightly notes, Gonzalez has to handle all of that, keep improving and challenge himself on the field for Monterrey. If he can't and becomes distracted, not only would he not make the Mexican national team, he wouldn't keep his place in a Rayados' side that boasts full internationals as substitutes.

Where would he play for Mexico?

Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio is already on record saying that in his team structure -- usually a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder -- Gonzalez would fit in one of the midfield positions ahead of the more defensive-minded central midfielder, probably on the right. That's different from the holding role Gonzalez plays with Monterrey.

Gonzalez doesn't have the requisite height Osorio likes in the holding role, but he played his youth team football for Monterrey in one of the more attacking midfield roles and is familiar with the position.

If Osorio does play with two central midfielders that sit back more, Gonzalez clearly has the versatility to adapt and in time his best position will arguably be as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-2-3-1.

Is a World Cup place possible?

Now that Gonzalez has decided his international future, his goal has to be to reach the World Cup, something the United States couldn't offer this year after their disastrous qualifying campaign.

On the right, Gonzalez will be competing for a starting spot with Hector Herrera, Jonathan dos Santos, Orbelin Pineda, Jesus Duenas, Marco Fabian and Omar Govea. On the left, Andres Guardado is an automatic starter, with Erick Gutierrez, Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela also considered.

It seems a difficult task for Gonzalez, but it is hardly impossible. Herrera and Guardado are virtual guarantees and arguably Mexico's most important players, but Herrera may yet occupy the holding role. Behind them, the Dos Santos brothers and Vela won't play a competitive game until March, Duenas seems to have fallen out of favor, Pineda simply isn't in form and Govea is more a promising youngster than an established international.

The path to emulate is that of Guardado ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Like Gonzalez, Guardado burst onto the scene in the Apertura ahead of the World Cup and followed it up with a strong Clausura tournament. The rest is history, with Guardado going on to put in a career-defining performance against Argentina in the Round of 16 and become an El Tri regular ever since.

Juan Carlos Osorio sees potential in Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez.
Juan Carlos Osorio sees Gonzalez playing in front of a defensive midfielder for El Tri.

Gonzalez needs to take his chances if and when he gets called up, but it's certainly not a battle he should be afraid of taking on.

What about the future?

In the short term, the United States loses very little keeping in mind the Stars and Stripes won't be at the World Cup. It's over the longer-term -- way beyond Russia 2018 -- that Gonzalez's decision could be put into sharp focus.

The player has the potential to be playing his club football in Europe in the near future and could be a regular in Mexico's midfield for the next 15 years or more. Such players are not easy to unearth and every move forward in Gonzalez's career will be a reminder of what the United States let slip away.

How did Mexico win the battle?

Having no World Cup to dangle in front of Gonzalez and the lethargic manner in which U.S. Soccer appeared to approach him were cited as factors behind Gonzalez's decision. The debate will go on in the United States.

But from the Mexican perspective, a lot of work has gone in to scouting and keeping tabs on dual nationals. The interest shown from the Mexican Football Federation and Liga MX clubs in scouting events put on in the United States by Alianza de Futbol -- which put Gonzalez in front of Liga MX scouts -- highlights part of that.

In director of national teams Dennis te Kloese, general secretary Guillermo Cantu and sporting director Gerardo Torrado, the FMF has three smart operators with perhaps more common sense when it comes to these things than the Mexican federation has previously possessed. Each speaks English and has worked or studied in the United States. Between them and Osorio, they were able to convince Gonzalez. There was a trip to California, phone calls from Osorio and meetings at the Liga MX final in Monterrey last month.

The United States may have dropped the ball, but Mexico picked it up, ran with it and may have scored one of the most significant victories we have ever seen in the battle to get a dual U.S.-Mexico national on board.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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