It was the kind of goal players dream of scoring, a 25-yard left-footed laser that Alex Mendez made look easy. His U.S. Under-20 teammates went wild celebrating, even though the goal itself wasn't all that surprising to them coming from Mendez's deadly left foot.
Highlight-reel goals have become the norm for Mendez, the U.S. team's breakout star at the Concacaf Under-20 Championships, but anyone who has actually watched the matches Mendez has played this month, and not just the highlights, has seen just why Mendez is rapidly emerging as one of the best young prospects in the entire U.S. player pool, while also being one of the youngest players on the U.S. Under-20 team.
It has been a whirlwind few months for the East LA native, who signed a professional contract with Bundesliga side SC Freiburg in September. Mendez made his professional debut earlier in 2018, playing for LA Galaxy II, the club’s USL side, but he ultimately made the decision to join the growing wave of top American prospects moving to Germany to continue their development.
"Every kids dream is to go to Europe and play with the biggest clubs, and I thought why not now when the door is open," Mendez told Goal. "It’ll be great for me as a person to grow there."
The move from Los Angeles to the Southwestern corner of Germany, a short drive away from where the German, French and Swiss borders intersect, is a long journey for a kid from East LA who once considered the trip to San Bernardino a long one. Yet the distance didn't matter to him as much as the good treatment he received during a trial at Freiburg that made the German outfit stand out from the other clubs Mendez visited.
"I went on trial with other clubs and it didn't feel the same, not like it did at Freiburg," Mendez said. "Looking back, they really treated me well and they took me in as if I was one of their own, so it made me feel like that was the place for me.
"When I got there, I was like ‘what are these guys saying?’" Mendez said with a smile, remembering his first day in Germany. "On the field it was more I know I can play with these guys, but it was the language barrier that stood out. But I know learning the language can come with time."
Mendez has learned quite a bit in 2018, a year that began with him having the chance to join the LA Galaxy's first team for preseason training camp. It was his first time being able to train with adult players, and work alongside stars such as Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos.
Happy to announce that I have signed my first contract with @scfreiburg. I want to give a big thank you to my family, coaches, friends, and teammates that have helped and supported me throughout this process. It’s only the beginning 🙇🏽♂️💭 pic.twitter.com/JhG3hVarLh— Alex Mendez (@aleexm21) October 24, 2018
"It helped a lot because you see Gio and Jona, those are big time players who have a lot of experience, and you train with them," Mendez said. "They helped me out and gave me tips on what can I do and can’t I do on and off the field. It’s just little things that I learned and now I know for the future anywhere I go."
Mendez made six appearances with the Galaxy's USL affiliate, LA Galaxy II, earning five starts as a 17-year-old at a time when many of his peers were still playing academy soccer.
"There’s a lot of things that you get away with in academy that you can’t get away with at the USL level with Los Dos," Mendez said. "When I went back to academy after a couple of months with Los Dos I felt a difference in the DA games. Things that I was doing were just better."
Mendez's development as a soccer player didn't begin in the Galaxy academy, but much earlier in East Los Angeles, where he, Mexican Under-17 midfielder Efrain Alvarez and U.S. Under-20 teammate Ulysses Llanez united as teammates playing for highly-respected youth coach Brian Kleiban at the youth academy of the now-defunct MLS side Chivas USA. When Chivas USA folded, the Galaxy hired Kleiban as an academy coach, and he brought along his top players, Mendez among them.
Three years later, Alvarez is coming off a breakout season with Galaxy II, Llanez has emerged as one of the best 17-year-olds in the United States and Mendez is one of the best American players born in 2000. Mendez credits Kleiban with helping him develop into the player he has already become and with helping him build a solid foundation to build on in the future.
"When I was younger I didn’t have the mental side of the game, and that’s the biggest part of the game," Mendez said. "I didn’t have it, and (Kleiban) would be hard on me, telling me off. After developing that for years and years that’s something you want to have. It makes you tougher."
Nobody who watches Mendez play now with the U-20s would accuse him of not having the mental side of the game down. Not after watching him command the U.S. midfield during a dominating showing at the Concacaf Championships, with coach Tab Ramos deploying him in a box-to-box midfield role that has helped showcase his tireless engine and pinpoint passes.
WHAT. A. RIP. 😱— U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) November 17, 2018
Alex Mendez fires from 30 yards away to give the 🇺🇸 a 1-0 lead vs. 🇨🇷! pic.twitter.com/BKgoXTFlvT
Though he grew up a Barcelona fan who counts Iniesta as his favorite player and Xavi and Ronaldinho as inspirations, Mendez names a former Real Madrid star he has only watched in YouTube videos as the player he would like people to compare him to.
"Guti. The way he saw the game. He was playing some crazy passes," Mendez said with admiration. "Sometimes during games I feel like I see things that other players don’t. I feel like I have the same style of play as him."
While Guti is a lofty inspiration to live up to, Mendez is making his own name at the Concacaf Championships and is hoping to lead the U.S. team to a meeting against arch-rival Mexico in the final. Mendez is eligible to play for Mexico and tells Goal he hasn't been contacted by Mexican officials since his U-17 days.
"I wouldn’t say I've closed the door (on Mexico), but I’m happy where I’m at right now," Mendez said. "It would mean a lot to play Mexico. I want to play them so bad. I want to beat them."
First, Mendez will need to lead the U.S. team through Monday's match with Honduras, where a draw or win will secure a place in Wednesday's final. if the Americans prevail, it will very likely be on the strength of some highlight plays from Mendez, who has turned the tournament into his personal showcase, an event many U.S. fans will remember fondly if Mendez can fulfill his considerable potential.