The Throw-In: Before Gomez, Torres, the first gringo pioneer in Mexico

Part 1 in a 2-part series

Herculez Gomez has a Mexican scoring title to his name. José Francisco Torres has his etched on the CONCACAF Champions League trophy. Not that long ago, the very thought that an American would ever have achieved such things in Mexico was laughable.

For having those opportunities, Gomez and Torres can thank the guys who first proved gringos could hack it South of the Border some 20 years ago – guys like Cle Kooiman, Mike Sorber and Tab Ramos.

But not a single one of them likely would have ever had a chance if it weren’t for Mike Getchell.

Don’t know the name? Not surprising. But you should. He might have one of the greatest forgotten stories in the history of American soccer. Just ask a handful of MLS coaches and former players.

Sigi Schmid calls him one of the best midfielders he’s ever coached, a mixture of Benny Feilhaber and Kaká. Dominic Kinnear remembers him as an “excellent, extremely skilled player.” Paul Caligiuri says that, had things gone differently, Getchell was a lock to play alongside him at the 1990 and ’94 World Cups.

Yet Getchell rarely gets credit for the leap of faith he made 21 years ago. With a reconstructed knee and a dream to get his path to the U.S. national team back on track, this Brazilian-raised Californian took a chance on an unexpected invitation to trial with Monterrey.

Before he really understood what was happening, he was wearing the blue-and-white striped jersey of los Rayados, quietly becoming the first American ever to play in the Mexican Primera División. And in doing so, he took the bumps and bruises – literally – for every Yank who came after him.

“There were a lot of unfortunate incidents,” recalled Getchell recently of that difficult season. “There were literally physical fights with teammates. I wasn’t really invited to social events with the local guys. I didn’t have much of a social life. I figured it would be hard – I just didn’t realize how hard.”

What on earth possessed a fair-haired, blue-eyed American to brave the hard-knocks Mexican league in the first place? Why go someplace where gringos clearly weren’t welcome? It was a combination of factors, and one that could only have happened during the decade of purgatory between the collapse of the NASL and the formation of MLS.

Getchell was always sort of stuck between two worlds. He was steeped in samba-style futebol from growing up in Brazil, where his father, an Episcopalian minister, had been deployed. But the escalating instability of the military government in the late 1970s forced the Getchells to move home to the States.

And that’s when Getchell really began to stand out. After his family resettled in Northern California, teenage Michael and his older brother, Marcos, began to attract interest from coaches who saw the young Brazilian-Americans blowing away the local kids on rec fields.

It was Schmid, then coach at UCLA, who won a recruiting race to grab him. Under his and assistant Steve Sampson’s tutelage, Getchell became a star playmaker during his time in Westwood in the early 1980s. He was a standout among a big-name cast that included eventual U.S. national-teamers Caligiuri, David Vanole, Dale Ervine and Tom Silva.

The Bruins won the NCAA Championship in 1985 as Getchell led the team in assists. In the Final Four, he really shone, dishing out another four and adding a goal of his own.

“He wasn’t fast, but he could find one-two [passes] anywhere,” recalled Schmid of the guy they called "Getch." “He was elegant and had a different rhythm with a very unique gait to him. It was hard for people to take the ball from him.”

UCLA stuck by Getchell despite poor grades, a fiery temperament and a torn ACL that nearly derailed his career before it even began. He had played well enough to make a handful of appearances for the U.S. national “B” team, but never made his senior-team breakthrough.

Upon graduation, Getchell quickly realized the opportunities to play pro soccer in the U.S. at that time were few. There was no more glamorous NASL to pad his credentials. All that was left were a smattering of satellite leagues or the fledgling indoor league.

Getchell dabbled in both, and in 1988, landed with the Western Soccer Alliance version of the San Jose Earthquakes, just down the road from where he went to high school in Berkeley.

During that season in San Jose, Getchell struck up a friendship with two Mexicans the club had lured: midfielder Tomás Boy (who captained El Tri at the 1986 World Cup) and up-and-coming young striker Francisco “El Abuelo” Cruz. Both had spent time with Monterrey, and were impressed enough with Getchell’s abilities that they recommended him to their former club.

Within three whirlwind weeks, Getchell found himself on a plane to Monterrey, where he was put on a quick trial with the Rayados. He impressed manager José Ledesma enough to earn himself a contract a week later.

Getchell was the lone gringo on the club, the only one on the team who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Yet by the time the 1988-89 season began, Getchell was on the opening-day XI. He had broken a barrier he barely realized existed.

“I guess I knew [I was the first American], but so what?” he recalled. “Nobody ever called me and said, ‘Wow that’s interesting.’ I just went on with my life.”

Continue to Part 2: Getchell’s gringo celebrity in Mexico, despite his feelings of isolation – plus the red card that effectively ended his dream.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.