SAN DIEGO – For years, the left-back position has been a point of contention for US National Team fans, with a number of candidates failing to lock down the vital position.
But just south of the border, a young left back is excelling at the highest levels of Latin American soccer.
Miguel Ángel Ponce, a 21-year-old native of Sacramento, Calif., has shone in his rookie year for Chivas de Guadalajara, starting in five of six of the club’s Apertura matches as well as both legs of the Copa Libertadores final.
The young left back started and went 45 minutes in Guadalajara’s penalty-kick defeat to Chivas USA in Tuesday night's ChivaClásico at San Diego’s PETCO Park.
The match was a homecoming of sorts for the left back, who was raised in Tijuana and featured for teams in San Ysidro on the American side of the border until being discovered by Chivas at 14. Ponce admits to having some discussions with the Mexico's youth national-team setup, but remains divided about who to represent should the opportunity arise.
“I was born in America, but in my case my family is Mexican so I’m more Mexican than American,” said Ponce. “I’m proud to play for a team that I love, but if Mexico or the US call me and I need to play for a [national] team, then I will have to see what I can do. I just need to wait and see.”
Ponce follows in the footsteps of Chivas USA’s Jesus Padilla, a striker whose American lineage led to great controversy for a club that had historically that accepted only Mexican citizens.
The question over Padilla’s American birth became so heated that Chivas owner Jorge Vergara had to specify that foreign-born players born to Mexican parents can feature for Guadalajara. While foreign-born players are allowed on the squad, Guadalajara maintain a long-standing rule that their players can only be Mexican National Teamers.
This rule complicates Ponce’s potential choice of national teams greatly. Should the 21-year-old decide to represent the United States, he would immediately lose his spot at Chivas, the club he has supported his entire life. For Ponce to turn his back on Guadalajara would require a lot of thought on the young man’s part.
“If the US is interested, then I haven’t noticed," Ponce said, "but Chivas de Guadalajara is a Mexican team and Mexicans have to play there. If I was to play for the US, then I can’t play for Chivas, so if they call me, then I would need to really think about what to do.”
Ponce’s story of crossing is not unusual, as hundreds of Mexican players travel across the Mexican-US border each day to attend school and play for teams on the US side.
This relationship between players and clubs on both side of the border has led to a number of of young players moving from the United States to Mexican clubs, including US stalwarts like Pachuca’s José Francisco Torres.
Since his inclusion in the vaunted Chivas system at a young age, Ponce has risen through the ranks from the youth level to the first team.
His first opportunity for Chivas came last season as he earned three starts for the Rojiblancos, including a pair of starts in Chivas’ Bicentenario 2010 quarterfinal defeat to Morelia. Now with the opportunity to play every day for a top club, Ponce is attempting to make the most of the opportunity.
“I’m a rookie, so I’m learning from the experienced players like [Héctor] Reynoso and [Jhonny] Magallón, who give me a lot of pointers,” said Ponce. “I’m proud to play with them, and guys like Reynoso have done a lot to teach me more about my position.”
After a fast start with Guadalajara, Ponce hopes to join the ranks of the club’s proud tradition of defenders such as Claudio Suárez and current Mexican international Carlos Salcido. Despite any question as to his national team preference, the youngster remains focused on earning his spot with his childhood club.
“I waited four-and-a-half years for this opportunity, so now that I’ve got it, I need to take advantage of it,” said Ponce. “In Mexico, Chivas is the best team and I’m very proud to be part of a great group of people.”