Edwin Lara might have felt a little unease heading into his first camp with the U.S. Under-20 national team, but the feeling was quickly replaced by relief.
The former Mexican Under-17 World Cup defender reached out to Tab Ramos last fall and let him know that he wanted play for the United States. While the California native fell short of making the U.S. Under-20 team that eventually won the Concacaf Championship over Mexico last November, Lara remained on Ramos' radar, and he earned a call for the recently-concluded January camp for the U-20s. It marked Lara's first time in a U.S. camp since he was a highly-regarded defender on the same USMNT U-15 team that includes the likes of Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, and his first time with the U.S. since making the decision to play for Mexico.
If Lara had any concerns about how he would be received in U.S. camp, they didn't last long. He was welcomed with open arms, by a coach who didn't hold his past allegiance to Mexico against him, and a new set of teammates who didn't care that he once wore the green jersey of the U.S. team's biggest rival.
"I felt like it was something I wanted to do," Lara told Goal about his return to the U.S. youth setup. "I didn’t really appreciate what (U.S. Soccer) did for me when I was younger because I was just a kid then. When I was looking back I thought about it and they invested so much into me, the process, they really cared about me and all that stuff and I just turned my back on them. That was kind of a shady part for me, that was kind of shady. At that moment I thought I want to give it a try and be there."
The decision to bring Lara back into the U.S. setup was an easy one for Ramos, who wasn't about to hold Lara's previous decision to play for Mexico against him.
"He's a good player, and someone we always wanted to have the door open to," Ramos told Goal. "I think he realized he can have some good opportunities here, but he still has a long way to go. He still has to prove himself, and he has to get adjusted to being back with us."
Lara made the switch from the United States to Mexico before the 2015 Under-17 World Cup. He made the Mexican squad, though he would have been a good bet to start for the U.S. team if he had stayed with the United States. That Under-17 World Cup saw the Americans crash out of group play without a win despite featuring Pulisic. Mexico enjoyed a much better Under-17 World Cup that year, making a run to the semifinals. Lara played in just one of Mexico's matches, starting in El Tri's 4-2 semifinal loss to eventual champion Nigeria.
Though Lara still counts the Under-17 World Cup experience as a special one in his development as a player, he admits now that the decision to play for Mexico wasn't one he was fully on board with.
"Back then my parents were still making decisions for me. I was still young, I didn’t know what was going on and how the world works," Lara said. "I was playing in Mexico so they thought why not play for Mexico and stay in Mexico so I don’t have to be moving from place to play. Now I can make decisions for myself and honestly I always liked the U.S. They always treated me well."
Lara's very public switch to Mexico, and his Under-17 World Cup appearance, helped generate buzz about him being a potential future star, with the Guardian putting him on a list of 60 best young talents in world football, a list that included the likes of Gianlugi Donnarumma, Reiss Nelson and Matthijs de Ligt.
Lara's career never quite took off after that promising start, and it stalled at Pachuca, where he failed to break into the first team. Lara fell out of favor with the club, and while he put some of the blame for his struggles on Pachuca going away from the practice of bringing up academy players to the first team, sources tell Goal that Lara also deserved some blame for losing focus and not putting in the work necessary to keep progressing.
"Every player has moments like that. Sad moments, moments where they’re not that motivated. It happens to everyone," Lara said. "At this moment, just coming here (to U.S. camp) has given me a breath of fresh air. it’s given me motivation again to work hard."
Lara left Pachuca for Club Leon in the summer, and is eager to make the most of his fresh start, with a new club, and back with the national team he feels he belongs with. The 19-year-old is still very much a promising left back prospect who believes he has improved, even though he is still searching for his Liga MX debut.
"I feel like I’ve matured a lot more in the sense of reading the game, and knowing when to go and when to stay," Lara said. "Back (with Mexico's U-17s) I was just that left back that would go, go, go. I didn’t worry about defending. Now I’ve learned that I’m a defender at the end of the day so I always have to run back. Knowing when to go and when to stay and basically have that timing so I can be at the right spot at the right time."
Lara is facing plenty of stiff competition in the U.S. Under-20 national team player pool, and earning a spot on the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team is far from a sure thing. Hannover 96 defender Chris Gloster is the team's starter at left back, while Philadelphia Union defender Matt Real and Ajax fullback Sergino Dest are also options for Ramos at left back.
For now, Lara isn't looking that far ahead. He was content to simply have the chance to be back with the U.S. program
"I felt very happy. I feel proud. I feel motivation," Lara said. "I just want to show Tab, the coaches and everybody that I deserve a spot. They’re good guys, good players and I just feel like I’m at home."
And how did Lara's parents respond to his decision to play for the United States?
"They were just happy for me. I talked to them about it and they had my back 100 percent," Lara said. "I wasn’t that little kid that would just say yes to everything. Now I can say what I want and I feel a lot better."
Lara isn't the first, nor will he be the last player to have to make the decision between playing for the United States and Mexico. His childhood friend Jonathan Gonzalez is one of the most high-profile examples of an American-born player choosing Mexico, but Lara is now on the same side with players such as recent U.S. Under-20 standouts Alex Mendez, Ulysses Llanez and Frankie Amaya among Mexican-Americans choosing to play for the United States.
Lara's advice for players in that position?
"Every player's situation is different," Lara told Goal. "Maybe some players don’t feel at home over there even if they’re Mexican. Maybe some players feel more at home over here. It’s a bunch of things that can make that decision.
"If you feel at home, and you feel comfortable with the U.S. team then just stay, don’t even think about it. Go wherever you feel at home."
For Lara, home is wearing the United States uniform again, and he's happy to be back.