Fear. Fans on both sides of the United States/Mexico border have had a recurring dread for some time. An up-and-coming player, someone who really can help the squad, suddenly going to the rival side - never to help your team again.
United States fans went into crisis mode when Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, who had represented the U.S. at the youth level, filed his one-time switch in 2018 and became a Mexico international.
El Tri fans had a similar reaction last week when suddenly, it seemed the U.S. was courting Leon forward Jose Juan Macias. Macias represented Mexico at the U-20 World Cup and was in a senior team camp just a week before the report came out, but that didn't stop the freak-out when a Fox Deportes commentator said Macias had been getting calls from the north.
Never mind that no one was sure if he'd be eligible for the U.S., even if, as the report said, he has an American passport in addition to his Mexico one. This was a potential loss of an enormous talent! The next day, Macias was in Mexico's pre-Olympic squad, seemingly committed to El Tri for now, likely as he has been all along.
While Macias doesn't seem to be the next dual-national to be wooed by both sides, the reality is the U.S. has had several 'victories' on that front. Avid fans are more worried about FC Dallas duo Ricardo Pepi and Nico Carrera joining the United States U-17s in this friendly window ahead of the U-17 World Cup in October than a potential Macias swap. Plus, former FC Dallas forward Johan Gomez signed with Porto this week. He's in the U.S. system while his brother has been in Mexico camps.
Fear is becoming the driving motivator of the enormous interest for United States and Mexico fans in dual-nationals, but you have to wonder if it ever will be overtaken by apathy or even boredom.
Don't get me wrong. The stories of a player choosing which country to represent, many of whom feel fully American after growing up in the U.S. but also fully Mexican thanks to the influence of their family and community, are extremely compelling. The potential of brother vs. brother in a senior national team game certainly intrigues.
It's just that this story is going to be increasingly common. Even if you throw out the fact that soccer is highly popular in Mexican-American communities (just look at the Liga MX TV ratings if you don't buy it), the demographics show more and more Mexican-Americans are going to be coming of age in the next decade. Many of them will be supremely talented soccer players.
In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the country's Mexican-American population is around 37 million. A Pew study last year noted 61 percent of Hispanic residents are 35 or younger with the population of Latinos under 18 years old growing 22 percent between 2006 and 2016.
That's Latinos in general, not only Mexican-Americans. The nature of the U.S. is that there also will be Salvadoran-Americans, Honduran-Americans and even Dutch-Americans like Sergino Dest who are making big choices.
More and more players are going to be making these types of decisions. Some of them will turn into full internationals. Maybe there even will be a superstar among the mix. Others will have fine professional careers without breaking through at the international level while still others will fail to live up to the expectations and go pro in something other than sports. The number of players in this category will go from dozens to hundreds.
A graphic floating around the Internet (I saw it on R/LigaMX ) showed a full team of Mexican-Americans currently in the U.S. system (it's set up in a 3-4-3 and doesn't even include Pepi as the No. 9). The USSF and FMF may have been caught napping during past dual-national sagas, but it seems both have learned their lesson. Coaches and directors are taking more active roles and doing tasks more like those usually associated with college football coaches - figuring out who the decision-maker is, making sure the player knows he's wanted, checking in on the parents to see what concerns they have.
The list of players courted by both nations is only going to grow. That's why fans are right to pressure their federations to set up structures that seek to find which players could play for another nation - and which ones are truly worth the attention.
Fan are going to be fans. They're going to get excited about a potential recruit, devastated by a defection or just bummed out when it seems like their team might not be as good as they hope. That said, it's worth remembering the situation these boys are being put in.
At the same time most kids are figuring out whether they should use their last $5 to toss some gas in the tank of their beater or hit the drive-through, they're being asked to make decisions that will stick with them for life about which coaches are best for them, which feel is best. Ultimately, they're being asked to very publicly state their identity. Who are you? Are you with the U.S. or are you with Mexico?
And it's usually not that simple. There's that scene in the Selena movie that resonates deeply with many Mexican-Americans in which Abraham Quintanilla, played by Edward James Olmos says, "We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It's exhausting!"
A lot of kids are being asked to figure that dynamic at a very early age. It's worth remembering the pressure they're feeling and the fear they have too - of the reaction of loved ones or a group of fans, of making the wrong choice or not being good enough. If we can step back and do that, even a little, it will be good for everyone on all sides of this beautiful rivalry.