When Alex Mendez made the decision to leave the United States to pursue his dream of European glory, it wasn't an easy one, but it was one he knew he had to make.
The LA Galaxy academy product signed with German club SC Freiburg with the hope being that it would be a good first step toward playing for the high-profile clubs he dreamed of playing for as a child growing up in Los Angeles.
The next step for Mendez came on Tuesday, when he completed a transfer to Dutch powerhouse Ajax.
"Every kid's 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 last November. "It’ll be great for me as a person to grow there."
Mendez joins U.S. Under-20 teammate Sergino Dest in an Ajax squad that puts a premium on developing young talent. Mendez has yet to make his first-team debut in Europe, having featured in Freiburg's U19 team last season, but the 18-year-old attacking midfielder is joining a club with a reputation for giving young players opportunities.
The move comes two months after Mendez featured at the U20 World Cup, helping the United States reach the quarterfinals. Mendez didn't play his best at that tournament, falling short of the lofty expectations created by his dominating displays in the CONCACAF Championships in 2018, but he still showed glimpses of his quality, and clearly showed enough to convince Ajax that he was a prospect worth pursuing.
A central midfielder with the ability to take on defenders, deliver sharp assists as well as score goals from distance with his accurate left foot, Mendez is the kind of attacking prospect who could thrive in Ajax's system.
It has been a whirlwind year for the East LA native, who signed a professional contract with Freiburg in September of 2018. 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.
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 he 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 pre-season 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.
"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 I can do and can’t 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 the academy that you can’t get away with at the USL level with Los Dos," Mendez said. "When I went back to the 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 U17 midfielder Efrain Alvarez and U.S. U20 team-mate Ulysses Llanez united as team-mates 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.
Mendez credits Kleiban with helping him develop into the player he has already become and with helping him create 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."
Mendez began making serious waves last November, as the leading star on the U.S. U20 team that won the CONCACAF Championships. That tournament allowed Mendez to show off his full assortment of attacking qualities, including his pin-point passes and dangerous left foot.
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 has begun making his own name, first with his standout showing at the CONCACAF Championships, and more recently at the U20 World Cup.
His performance in the CONCACAF U20 final against Mexico was particularly memorable for Mendez, who is the son of Mexican parents and still eligible to play for Mexico. He was the best player on the field in the U.S. team's 2-0 win against a Mexico U20 side that featured Real Betis midfielder Diego Lainez.
"I wouldn’t say I've closed the door (on Mexico), but I’m happy where I’m at right now," Mendez told Goal before the U20 CONCACAF final. "It would mean a lot to play Mexico. I want to play them so bad. I want to beat them."
Mendez played one of the best games of his young career against Mexico, leading the Americans to a dominating victory. That performance offered a glimpse into the kind of talent, and competitor he is. The kind of talent and competitor that has led Ajax to sign him as a member of its next generation of promising prospects.