Jonathan Gonzalez's decision to give up his U.S. national team eligibility to play for Mexico sent shockwaves through American soccer. The move invited questions about what U.S. Soccer could have done better to prevent the loss of such a talented prospect, with the hope of preventing another dual-national from making the same choice in the future.
Losing Gonzalez to Mexico was a big blow, and it's a safe bet that it won't be the last time an American-born player chooses to play for El Tri. What was easily overlooked in the midst of the Gonzalez move was the reality that the U.S. had won far more battles for Mexican-American players than Mexico.
In fact, Gonzalez was the first such high-profile U.S. player to make that jump, whereas players such as Edgar Castillo and Jesse Gonzalez had chosen to play for the United States after previously representing El Tri.
That trend could soon begin shifting. Gonzalez's switch potentially opens the door for more players to make similar decisions, especially if he enjoys success with El Tri, and if the Mexican Federation steps up its recruitment of dual-nationals.
Two can play that game through, and while U.S. Soccer officials now have to be more careful about cultivating relationships with dual-nationals, Mexico should also prepare for the U.S. to make a push for some top prospects currently representing El Tri.
Who are some of the top young dual-nationals who could be in a position to make a decision like Gonzalez did last month? Here are four talents to keep an eye out for in the coming years:
MANNY PEREZ, right back, U.S. U-20s/North Carolina State
Though he has yet to turn pro, Perez is one of the most highly rated young prospects in the U.S. youth national team pipeline. A skilled and athletic right back, Perez turned down a Generation Adidas contract offer from Major League Soccer — he would have been a lock top-two pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft — to return for his sophomore season at North Carolina State.
Perez impressed at the recent U.S. youth summit and is projected to be a key figure in the next U.S. Under-20 national team cycle. The 18-year-old North Carolina-born midfielder/defender has Mexican roots and is very likely to be recruited by El Tri. The U.S. facing Paraguay in a March friendly in North Carolina could offer an opportunity for Perez to spend time with the senior U.S. team.
ULYSES LLANEZ, winger, U.S. U-18s/LA Galaxy II
A technically gifted winger/forward who fell just short of making the most-recent U.S. Under-17 World Cup team last fall — a move widely seen as the biggest snub of the squad — Llanez wound up an alternate on that side. The 16-year-old is considered one of the best American players in his age group and recently enjoyed a successful stint with the LA Galaxy during its preseason preparations.
Llanez is no stranger to the Mexican youth national team setup, having previously spent time with the Mexican U-16s. Llanez was a participant in the recent U.S. youth summit in January, impressing as one of the best players in the camp. All signs point to him sticking with the U.S., but as Gonzalez reminded us, nothing is certain until a player is actually cap-tied.
EFRAIN ALVAREZ, attacking midfielder, Mexico U-17s/LA Galaxy II
The youngest player on this list, Alvarez has been turning heads for several years as a supremely skilled creator. The Los Angeles-born younger brother of former MLS midfielder Carlos Alvarez, 15-year-old Efrain has bounced between the U.S. and Mexican youth national team setups for some time.
But by playing for Mexico in last year's CONCACAF Under-15 championships, Alvarez can now only represent the United States if he files a one-time change of association with FIFA, much like Gonzalez did.
ALEX MENDEZ, midfielder, U.S. U-18s/LA Galaxy II
Another prospect who fell short of making last year's U.S. Under-17 World Cup team, Mendez made his professional debut with the LA Galaxy's USL affiliate last year, and was one of the players invited to the Galaxy's preseason training camp in recent weeks. The 17-year-old made his first appearance with the Galaxy first team in their recent 3-0 exhibition win against New York City FC.
Mendez has Mexican roots, and has been contacted by the Mexican federation in the past. If he can build on his impressive preseason with the Galaxy, he could find himself drawing even more attention from El Tri.