You can’t see it, but there’s a battle being waged almost continually underneath the visible soccer rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico’s 2-1 win over the U.S. in World Cup qualifying last month signified the rumble of the big guns, but the ground underneath is riven with struggles for the allegiances of young players.
This is the cold war between the two soccer nations, and Mexico is beginning to gain some ground.
The U.S.’s biggest victory on this front of late was RSL attacker Sebastian Saucedo’s decision to choose the U.S. over Mexico. Saucedo waffled between the two but ultimately chose the country of his rearing. But in the meantime, Mexico had two major, high profile wins in goalkeeper Abe Romero and fullback Edwin Lara, both of the LA Galaxy academy and both of whom played for USYNT teams. Lara and Romero both started for Mexico at the 2015 U17 World Cup, and to say nothing of Romero’s ability, Lara probably would’ve been the best fullback in the entire USYNT system had he stayed.
The U.S. was hit with another tough pill in September when the LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez, one of the most exciting players in the entire Development Academy, attended a Mexican national team youth training camp in Mexico City. Juarez, it should be said, will probably be the singular centerpiece of the 2017-19 U17 cycle if he opts to stay with the U.S.
Mexico dealt the U.S. two more shots across the bow over the weekend. Two promising USYNT players – Julian Hinojosa (FC Dallas) and Ulysses Llanez (LA Galaxy) – both accepted call-ups to a Mexican U16 camp. Hinojosa and Llanez were both in a U.S. U16 camp as recently as October, when they traveled to France for a tournament against England, Russia and the hosts. Llanez was the U.S.’s best player at the tournament, scoring both goals in the team’s only win over England. Hinojosa, a defender, made the roster but didn’t play.
Here’s Llanez as a U14 in 2015 scoring the type of golazo that’s become alarmingly commonplace for him over the past few years.
It’s unlikely either Llanez or Hinojosa (or probably even Alvarez at this point) have fully closed the door on the U.S. But they certainly thought enough about the opportunity to fly the coop and test the waters in the Mexican YNT system, which confirms that the FMF’s scouting apparatus is operating at full tilt in the U.S. And there’s recent precedent, as both Romero and Lara are both fully ensconced starters in the Mexican system after starting with the U.S. The U.S. has no similar stories flowing the other direction.
The question is not so much whether the U.S. can entice the far smaller chunk of Mexican dual internationals raised in Mexico to come north to the U.S. (it can’t, mostly) but whether the U.S. can convince its players already playing here to stay here.
In any case, just another episode in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the best and brightest in North America.