GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Wake up, play soccer, get paid.
Turning professional is a young player’s dream, but the reality for most is that signing is only a first step. The hard slog to make a career out of the beautiful game has only just begun.
Such is the case for many young Americans who have headed south for the chance to play professionally within a Mexican club’s youth system, looking to replicate what US national teamers José Torres, Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Joe Corona have achieved in recent years.
For some, loan moves to lower divisions offer the chance of more first-team minutes. For others, another season in their club's Under-20s or Under-17s beckons, along with the challenge of catching the right coach’s eye at the right time, or impressing potential suitors.
A select few are close enough to smell first-team minutes and are champing at the bit to step up into the major leagues, something that is more attainable this season thanks to every Mexican Primera División team being involved in either the CONCACAF Champions League or the new Copa MX.
Here, we take a look at four young Americans with a good shot at breaking through during the upcoming Apertura 2012 season in Mexico.
Alejandro Guido (Club Tijuana)
The US U-17 World Cup veteran explained to MLSsoccer.com back in April that Club Tijuana see him in the first-team picture, despite his tender age of 18.
Now fully registered with the Xolos for the new season, all indications suggest that the San Diego-born, Tijuana-raised Guido is on track for minutes alongside the likes of Corona, Castillo and Greg Garza. The young attacking midfielder has been handed significant playing time in Tijuana’s preseason friendlies so far and is a fixture in first-team training.
The Copa MX, scheduled to get underway on July 24, could offer youngsters like Guido the opportunity to put pressure on established first-teamers, and a path to Primera División minutes.
Fellow Southern Californian and U-17 World Cup veteran Stevie Rodriguez could also be in Tijuana’s first-team mix in the cup.
Julio Cesar Morales (Guadalajara)
An unknown to most “Gringo-followers,” this young striker played more games for Chivas’ U-20 side than any other player last season, and was the only one to feature in all 17 matches.
The left-footed 18-year-old goalscorer has been at Chivas for more than a year and featured in the Rebaño Sagrado’s U-17, second-division and third-division teams before stepping up full time to the U-20s last season.
Whispers around Guadalajara suggest the San Jose, Calif., native is well-regarded at Chivas and that both the US and Mexican federations are well aware of him.
“I feel more confident and relaxed,” Morales told Chivas’ official website on his return to preseason in June. “This is going to be my season. I hope the goals flow this tournament.”
One thing Chivas certainly aren’t scared of is giving youth a chance in the first team. With the storied club’s Dutch revolution in full spring under Johan Cruyff, it would be no surprise if coach John van’t Schip decided to have a look at Morales during Chivas’ CONCACAF Champions League campaign.
It is worth mentioning that following Morales up the Chivas ladder are San Jose, Calif.-born goalkeeper David Silva, and Phoenix-born forward Erik Venegas. Both were crowned champions with Chivas’ U-17s last season.
Benji Joya (Santos Laguna)
The 18-year-old has made big strides since joining the Guerreros and can play in a variety of positions. Joya came down south as a No. 10, playing off a main striker, but Santos have played him more on the wing with their U-20s.
Comfortable on the ball, brave and with high technical ability, US Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos has opted to play the San Jose, Calif., native slightly deeper on the left of the midfield three now employed throughout the US youth program.
Rumors coming out of Santos suggest that coach Benjamín Galindo has taken a shine to Joya and, with Santos involved in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, a debut may come before the end of the 2012.
A special mention should also go to Joya’s US and Santos U-20 teammate Daniel Cuevas, who plays as an out-and-out striker.
Both have been called up for the Milk Cup and seem to be part of Ramos’ process ahead of the 2013 World Cup in Turkey.
Victor Garza (Tigres UANL)
The winger suffered last season from Tigres’ exit at the qualification stage of the Copa Libertadores, robbing him of potential first-team minutes after impressing in his one brief 15-minute appearance against Unión Española back in February.
A mainstay of Tigres’ U-20 side last season, the Edinburg, Texas, native is in line for some first-team action in the Champions League, with coach Ricardo Ferretti well known for introducing younger players through international competitions.
With Nicaragua’s Real Estelí and Costa Rica’s Alajuelense as Tigres' group-stage opponents, the 20-year-old Garza should play a part.
Making the most of any chance he does get will be vital for Garza’s career at Tigres. As Jonathan Bornstein has found, Ferretti can be a difficult coach to please, but once you get in his good books, he usually backs a player to the hilt.
Another American at Tigres, US U-20 left back Juan Pablo Ocegueda, was not with the first team in preseason training, but will also be hoping the CCL is a chance to get some minutes.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.