Eric Gomez: Memo Ochoa's trailblazing efforts opening doors for Mexican keepers

Ochoa's solid play this year could earn him a move to a bigger club, but more importantly could pave the way for more Mexican goalkeepers in Europe.
A year ago, Guillermo Ochoa's transfer from Club América to AC Ajaccio was met with a wide range of criticism. Ochoa was derided for seemingly latching on the newly promoted French side with desperation after earlier efforts by PSG and Bordeaux fell through.

América was trashed for letting Ochoa walk away for free despite him being the first choice goalkeeper for club and country, and Ajaccio took heat for awarding the starting job to a player with no European experience despite being at risk for relegation.

Ochoa's decision was seemingly made out of loyalty after the Clenbuterol scandal surfaced in June and tainted him, as well as four other players on the Mexican national team, in the middle of the Gold Cup that El Tri would eventually win -- without Ochoa.

"Ajaccio were the only club who supported me and made me an offer and with the season about to start, I didn’t want to wait, so I said, ‘Yes’," said the former Club América star to L'Equipe.

With Ajaccio avoiding the drop a full season later, critics have been completely silenced for their take on the Ochoa transfer, a landmark for Mexican soccer considering the 26-year-old is the first goalkeeper in his country's history to sign for a European club playing in a top league. As bad as Ajaccio was at times during the 2011-12 Ligue 1 (only Dijon allowed more goals than the Corsican side), Ochoa was often pointed out as being a bright spot for the team by avoiding uglier scorelines in losses or salvaging draws when defeat was almost certain.

Next season might be an even bigger one for the two-time World Cup player. Ajaccio seems ready to repay Ochoa's loyalty (and bag a bit for itself, too) with a transfer to one of France's bigger teams, with several La Liga suitors also reportedly lining up bids. Ajaccio president Alain Orsoni was clear about the potential exit, even back in September in an interview with FourFourTwo.

"When Memo wants to go, he can leave," he told the magazine.

Whether it be France, Spain or any other European league, Ochoa's success has a collateral effect on Mexican netminders' thinking about a future across the pond. The knock on most Mexicans bound for exportation is the fact that most do not have ancestors who would qualify them for a European Union passport, thus putting them in the very exclusive non-EU shortlist of players. This is particularly magnified when signing a goalkeeper.

Yet, teams will be inclined to look past the limitation knowing that -- even with a full season of European football under his belt, countless personal accolades accumulated over a successful domestic career and extensive experience with the national team -- Memo is not the outright No.1 for El Tri.

Toluca's Alfredo Talavera, Cruz Azul's José de Jesús Corona, Tijuana's Cirilo Saucedo, Monterrey's Jonathan Orozco, Chivas' Luis Michel and Tigres' Enrique Palos are all rightful claimants to the position, and could be easily considered for European jobs.

On a team that is two and sometimes three deep at multiple positions, no spot on the pitch is richer with talent than goalkeeper for Mexico. National team manager Chepo de la Torre pushed for more migration as a whole with an emphasis on goalies so El Tri would "not fall behind," a clear allusion to the fact that U.S. soccer has had several of their best netminders go abroad in recent times. Ochoa has clearly felt the pressure, as a few of his hiccups prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup sidelined him in favor of 37-year-old Óscar Pérez.

With that in mind, special attention should be put on where Ochoa ends up this summer. Of the Mexican players making moving on to greener pastures, not one transfer is as important as Memo's. Success at a bigger club might give him the confidence to hold on to the starting spot for the national team and push his individual competitors to go abroad.

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Ochoa's legacy as one of Mexico's greats could have been tainted with an unsuccessful stint at Ajaccio. His bank account suffered with a lower salary than with Club América. It could have cost him any chance of being considered for the national team.

“All that doesn’t stop me from being happy. I am proud to be the first Mexican goalkeeper to play in Europe," says Ochoa.

Critics be damned.