US Under-21 nat'l team marked by Latin influence: "We're trying to bring US a little Mexican taste"

CARSON, Calif. – Benji Joya remembers as a child watching the US national team play and seeing very few faces like his.

It took decades and plenty of diligence by US Soccer to incorporate the country's best Mexican-American players into the national teams program, and it could pay off most richly at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in two years.

Nearly half the roster Tab Ramos brought to Southern California for the federation's first Under-21 camp, the first step toward the 2016 Summer Games, has Mexican roots, and a half-dozen of the players either play or have played for clubs south of the border.

“If I'm not mistaken, it's nine or 10 Hispanic players [here],” said Joya, a Chicago Fire midfielder who scored both goals as the team broke camp with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night over a mix of Club Tijuana first-teamers and reserves. “I think it's good, because they're giving us a lot of opportunities. Back then, I remember watching the national team, there was just a lot of Americanized players, and I didn't really see Hispanics. It's really nice how [Jurgen] Klinsmann and Tab Ramos are bringing a lot of Hispanic roots into the US team.

“We're Mexicans, but it really doesn't matter. We were born in the US, and we just want to play soccer. We're trying to bring to the US a little Mexican taste.”

That taste, combined with ingrained American traits that favor athleticism, high pressure and the physical dimension, is helping transform the USA's style of soccer into something that better represents the game as it's increasingly played here – and the nation's changing demographics.

“We grew up watching Mexican soccer, and we try to play like we see on TV,” Joya said. “It's just something about being Latin that really brings something else. I don't really know how to explain it, but I think we put it out on the field. That's when we show what I'm talking about.”

In addition to Joya, Mexican-Americans in camp were defenders Juan Pablo Ocegueda (Tigres UANL) and Oscar Sorto (LA Galaxy), midfielders Alejandro Guido and Stevie Rodriguez (both Club Tijuana), and forwards Daniel Cuevas (Lobos BUAP), Danny Garcia (FC Dallas), Victor Pineda (Chicago Fire) and Jose Villarreal (Cruz Azul). Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil, who is half-Mexican, pulled out with an injury.

“I think we are doing a better job of finding the best players,” said Ramos, one of the earliest Hispanic stars for the US national team. “In this age group, for example, it happens to be this way, there's a lot of Mexican-American backgrounds. I know with my new U-20s I have, there's not as much. There's an influence on the U-18s, maybe a little bit more, and then the younger teams there's more, but I think at this point it's just by chance, really.

“We are doing, I think, a better job overall of finding the best players.”

Ramos says Hispanic players haven't been targeted, that “it doesn't matter what their background is,” but he prefers “players that are comfortable with the ball. It just so happened that a lot of players [who fit with this] happen to be Latin in this particular age group, and in the really young age groups, as well.”

The difference is mindset, and those who have played in Mexico – like Joya, who spent two years with Santos Laguna before joining the Fire this season – have been immersed in the Mexican philosophy.

“It's more of a thinking game over there than here,” said defender Juan Pablo Ocegueda, who has been in Tigres' system since he was 15. “They bring more technical play to the game. I'm not saying the US doesn't have any, but in Mexico, they think a lot more, and it's a slower game, but more intelligently played over there than here.”

Joya says what he learned while growing up in the Bay Area, the American way of the game helped him prosper in Torreón.

“What really helped me in Mexico was playing here in the US,” he said. “Over there, they're more patient, and that's sometimes bad. Good for us, because we go over there, we're running and hustling and hitting.”