Once upon a time, Washington Spirit striker Renae Cuellar was an up and coming prospect within the US women’s national team setup.
The La Puente, Calif. native was involved within US Soccer up to Under-20s level, but eventually decided to go try out with Mexico, which had maintained longstanding interest in the speedy forward.
At that point, the now 23-year-old Cuellar had only really hopped the border from El Paso – where she has family – into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on family trips and admits her classroom-learned Spanish wasn’t as sharp as it could’ve been. Yet within one year, Cuellar had appeared for both Mexico’s Under-20s and full national team and the decision to switch was made.
It was the kind of career move that in the men’s game causes waves of recrimination, as seen most recently by Joe Corona’s switch from Mexico to the United States before the Olympic Games. In the women’s game, it is increasingly common. In the last Mexico squad of 2013, seven players were from the USA. Scouts from the Mexican federation are kept busy tracking Mexico-eligible players in what is the best female youth system on the planet: U.S. colleges.
Cuellar is regular asked why she didn’t stick it out and wait for the US, but she wanted an opportunity, a clear path to a national team and had followed Mexico since being very young due to her aunt playing for El Tri’s women.
“(The US) is a great program and always a great team, but I think that going with Mexico was just the best choice for me to make,” she explained to Goal USA recently. “I love it and it’s a comfortable environment.”
“I felt if anything we get the chance we deserve and you never know if that chance is going to come, with so many ages in the US before you get to the full team,” Cuellar added.
The striker cites former Mexico captain and Texas native Monica Gonzalez as a major influence and friend. Like Gonzalez, Cuellar had to learn to speak fluent Spanish on the job while playing for the Mexico national team.
“In the USA you can get by and you sound like you really know it, but when you get to Mexico it’s a little different,” laughed Cuellar, who added that the American girls speak Spanish in camp, “Especially when we wear the uniform, it’s only proper.”
In many ways, Cuellar is the archetypal player that Mexico is after at present as it seeks to close the gap on the world’s top teams. Strong, fast and athletic, Cuellar can mix it physically as well as counting on the technical ability Mexico’s female national team has not traditionally lacked.
“I’ve been there since I was 18 and I think we’re going in the right direction,” she states. “I feel like we’re developing a style more similar to the Brazils and the USAs … By the World Cup I think we’ll be a solid, solid team.”
Some of the evidence of Mexico’s growing quality in the female side of the game came at the back end of 2013, when the national team drew against Canada in Vancouver and the Under-17s got past both the United States and Canada to lift the CONCACAF Championship in Jamaica.
“It is exactly what we need,” said Cuellar. “Eventually us older ones won’t be there and we want to program to just get better.”
But Cuellar has her own goals for 2014 and they are ambitious. She is set on being one of the top three scorers in the NWSL – which she says has been an important boost in the women’s game - and scoring a goal per game for the Mexican national team.
As for the 2015 World Cup, Cuellar is confident that Mexico can qualify and that El Tri will give any team it comes up against a tough game.