U.S.'s January squad overshadowed by Gonzalez choosing Mexico
This was supposed to be a day on which the USSF generated a bit of excitement about the future of the men's national team program. What emerged instead was more angst.
The USSF (and acting U.S. men's national team manager Dave Sarachan) announced a 30-man roster for the team's annual January camp. It's a roster heavy on youth, with 21 of the players aged 24 and under, while also containing none of the mainstays from the failed World Cup qualifying effort. As is customary for the January camp, it has a large domestic presence, with 28 of the 30 players performing in MLS. Twelve of the players have participated in a youth World Cup as well, and all of this was intentional.
"Obviously, this is a unique January camp in that we're solely preparing for the future and to give opportunity to players that have a future in the program. We didn't bring in a lot of the veteran players for that reason," Sarachan said.
Yet overshadowing everything is a Univision report, later confirmed by ESPN FC's Tom Marshall, that U.S. youth international Jonathan Gonzalez, the 18-year-old Monterrey midfielder who enjoyed a breakout campaign last season, will file a one-time switch with FIFA and pledge his international allegiance to Mexico.
Gonzalez then tweeted on Monday night: "If I'm called [by the Mexico national team], I'm determined to defend the colors of this country. It would be an honor."
This represents a huge blow to an already reeling U.S. men's program. Gonzalez provided a composed, technical and mobile presence in Los Rayados' midfield this past season and was looked upon as a future building block for the U.S. moving forward. Yet various reports have indicated that El Tri (and in particular, Mexico's head of national teams, Dennis te Kloese) engaged in an aggressive recruiting drive in recent weeks, one that appears to have paid off.
If Gonzalez does indeed make this switch, it will invariably raise plenty of questions. How did the USSF let a player like Gonzalez get away, and why didn't Sarachan and the USSF's collective leadership do more to bring in Gonzalez for a friendly against Portugal last November?
Granted, the game itself wouldn't have cap-tied Gonzalez to the U.S. -- only an official match such as the Gold Cup or the newly minted CONCACAF league could accomplish that. But it might have sent a more tangible message to Gonzalez of his value to the U.S. program. Instead, doubts about whether Gonzalez was ready, plus his club commitments, ended up with him being left out.
Then again, there is no underestimating just how massive an opportunity it is to play in a World Cup, not to mention the immense fallout from the U.S. team's failure to qualify. Clearly, the chance of representing Mexico this summer is what has been dangled in front of Gonzalez, and with careers seemingly short or sidetracked quickly by injury or loss of form, it proved to be a powerful incentive indeed.
The influence of family can't be overlooked either, with Thomas Rongen -- U.S. Soccer's chief scout under former coach Bruce Arena -- telling CBS Sports that Gonzalez's father "is so Mexican, that he wanted [Jonathan] to represent Mexico and I knew it was probably a losing battle."
Sources have also told ESPN FC that over the last month both Sarachan and U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos tried to reach out to Gonzalez, and that he was among the list of call-ups for the January camp. While it seemed nearly impossible that Monterrey would release him, it was a way of letting the player know he was in the U.S. team's thoughts. The sources said Gonzalez never responded to Sarachan or Ramos.
Is the U.S. program bigger than any one player? Of course. Gonzalez is by no means the only budding midfield prospect. Yet the U.S. has never been in a position to take anything for granted, and outwardly, it looks as though the USSF didn't maximize its odds by failing to at least maintain a sufficient level of communication with Gonzalez. He told Soccer America that he was never spoken to about the Portugal friendly. Now, much like Borussia Dortmund and Serbia center-back Neven Subotic (himself a former U.S. youth international) before him, Gonzalez may yet go down as one who got away.
It is against this backdrop that Sarachan will convene the U.S. camp in Southern California. Given the absence of any of the mainstays from the previous qualifying cycle, the camp presents even more opportunity than usual and the collection of players is diverse, to say the least.
Some, like Tyler Adams and Brooks Lennon, are young up-and-comers. Others, like Gyasi Zardes, are trying to rebuild careers. Fifteen of the players are uncapped, and it's likely that quite a few will never make much of an impact at the international level. But an international career has to start somewhere, and now is the time to make an impression, even if Sarachan's stint in charge won't last beyond this summer. And so Bill Hamid, the lone overseas player released by his club, will try to make some headway toward getting more firmly in the national team frame, while Zack Steffen will try to build off his stellar playoff performances with the Columbus Crew.
At the back, plenty of eyes will be on Kansas City's Ike Opara, who emerged from an ungodly string of injuries to win the MLS Defender of the Year last year. Walker Zimmerman (now of Los Angeles FC) will try to put a disappointing 2017 behind him. Then there is the competition at fullback, where the likes of Real Salt Lake's Danny Acosta, San Jose's Nick Lima, Defender of the Year finalist Justin Morrow and the Chicago duo of Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent will battle it out.
The dynamic in midfield should be interesting in that a player like Wil Trapp has been knocking on the door for a while yet has been unable to make a breakthrough. And will Adams build off his outstanding campaign with the New York Red Bulls? There is also a previously unheralded player like Toronto's Marky Delgado trying to state his case. In terms of the next generation, there's D.C. United midfielder Ian Harkes, son of former U.S. captain John.
Up front, C.J. Sapong will be aiming to build on his stints against Portugal back in November. Then there are those who have seen their careers get sidetracked, like Zardes and Rubio Rubin, as well as one getting his first crack in a national team shirt, Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez.
On Jan. 10, many will have their eyes on the U.S. camp, but it's likely that even more will cast their gaze on Gonzalez and wonder what might have been.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.