On Monday, 16-year-old U.S. youth international Esteban Rodriguez signed a professional contract with Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente of the Mexican top flight.
Rodriguez, who prefers the nickname Stevie, is a product of the U.S. Residency Program and started all four games at the 2011 U17 World Cup, which is where the Mexican club started scouting him.
“Club Tijuana saw me play in the World Cup this past summer and they have been contacting me since then,” Rodriguez told TopDrawerSoccer.com on Wednesday.
Following the World Cup, Rodriguez returned to Southern California and decided to play for his former youth club Cosmos Academy West, which combined with Chivas USA’s Academy in August 2011.
The gifted attacker said his choice to leave Chivas USA was not easy, especially considering the bond he had grown with some of his teammates.
“My decision to leave Chivas USA was very difficult,” said Rodriguez. “I didn’t want to leave my brothers (my teammates) and the coaches.”
On the other hand, Club Tijuana was very happy that the teenager decided to head south of the border.
"Esteban has joined our institution and we are thrilled to have him," Club Tijuana Assistant General Manager Roberto Cornejo told TopDrawerSoccer.com on Thursday.
Now that he is with Club Tijuana, he is eligible to play for any number of the teams within the club’s system, but says he will mostly play for the reserves this season.
“Right now I am able to play for four teams: U17s, U20s, the reserve team in the third division, and the first team,” said Rodriguez, who will turn 18 on February 11. “But I am mostly going to play for reserves this season so they can get me ready for the next one!”
Cornejo added that Rodriguez is now training with the top team at the club after getting settled with his new team.
"He has been training with the Under 20 team except for the last couple of days where he has practiced with the our 1st division team," said Cornejo.
Xoloitzcuitles de Caliente, Club Tijuana’s reserve team, is currently top of the table in the Tercera Division Professional in Group XIV and resumes play on Saturday, February 4. The first team is back in action on Sunday against Puebla F.C.
Fellow Americans Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo, Gregory Garza, and Bryan de la Fuente are also members of Club Tijuana. Rodriguez’s U.S. U17 World Cup teammate Alejandro Guido is currently training there, as well.
While Rodriguez looks toward a bright future at his new club, his former club has some grievances with how the situation played out.
In an exclusive statement to TopDrawerSoccer.com, Chivas USA Academy Director Teddy Chronopolous conveyed frustration both with Rodriguez for leaving the Academy and the obstacles that prevent clubs from signing Academy players to Home Grown contracts.
“Chivas USA has invested a lot of resources into Esteban and we are disappointed with his decision to move elsewhere,” said Chronopolous in the statement issued on Wednesday.
“It is difficult to sign a young player to a professional contract in MLS,” added Chronopolous. “Esteban and his family felt they had an opportunity to become a professional for Tijuana’s youth reserve teams so that is why he has chosen to leave.”
Chronopolous went on to say that there was a plan in place to potentially ink an MLS contract with Rodriguez in the future.
“The club laid out a timeline in 2012 to potentially sign Esteban to a Home Grown player contract,” said Chronopolous. “This timeline had precise plans for him, for example playing in reserve matches, first team training, and skill and physical training.”
The difficulty Chivas USA had in signing Rodriguez apparently lied in the complex MLS rules for what constitutes a “Home Grown” player. The “Home Grown” rule is where a player who is involved with a given MLS club’s youth system can sign with that club directly, rather than having to go through the MLS Draft. In this case, Rodriguez had formerly been involved with the Cosmos Academy West club, before it folded and Rodriguez moved to Chivas USA.
Despite the loss of Rodriguez, Chronopolous expressed that Chivas USA’s ambitions remain the same with its Academy.
“Our goal and objectives for Chivas USA Academy continue to be to identify talented young soccer players and provide them with a comprehensive development plan, ensuring maximum growth and improvement to one day become a professional soccer player for our first team.”