WASHINGTON – The recruiting battle for Mexican-American dual-national players continues to simmer, with Mexico calling in three of them for their recent friendly vs. Guatemala and now reportedly moving to lure playmaker Alex Mendez to switch his allegiance as he finds his form in Portugal.
"Choose with their heart"
That’s just fine with Gregg Berhalter, the US men’s national team coach maintains.
“It’s great, it’s great,” Berhalter said at Audi Field on Wednesday when the topic of El Tri’s keen interest in US-based players was broached in a conversation with reporters. “No, seriously.
“The thing is, I always say, I want them to choose with their heart. I want them to feel good about it,” he explained. “And could you imagine growing up with parents and having a really strong cultural background and then being able to play for the country of that background? I think that's special. Even though the United States has given them that opportunity, there's still this deep connection to their country, and some of them have to leave their country and want to go back, but they can't. And so for me, if a guy really chooses that, I'm happy. I'm happy for him because that's what he feels in his heart.”
Berhalter has built a mostly solid recruitment record during his USMNT tenure, convincing talents like Yunus Musah, Tim Weah, Sergino Dest, Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira and Jordan Pefok to represent the Stars and Stripes. There have been some prominent defections, though, particularly to Mexico, with MLS-based prospects Julian Araujo, Efrain Alvarez and David Ochoa among them.
Araujo subsequently spoke of a lack of “connection” with members of the US camp. But Berhalter, who has generally taken a low-key tone rather than a high-pressure sales pitch, believes he and his staff have created a welcoming environment for Latino players.
“I think so. When I speak to guys like Ricardo and Jesus, and Jonathan Gomez, and have conversations with them, they feel a connection,” said the coach. “It's not always easy, though. I think that, in general, I would like for our Latin players to be pushed more, in a positive way, that we're looking to develop them more and that we're putting more effort into developing the Latin community as well, because I think it's important.
“We talk to all these guys. We talk constantly to all these players. We're very engaged in this process, really engaged in the process. But I also realize that sometimes a player has it in his heart to do something else, and I'm fine with that.”
"The track record’s not great, right?"
He also hinted that Mexico may not necessarily have the individual recruits’ best interests foremost in mind.
“I think that Mexico is really smart. They're going to talk to anyone that has a dual passport, and they're going to look to get them over,” said Berhalter. “And they're working the numbers, and the more players they can get, the more likely it is that one of them will contribute.
“The track record’s not great, right? And that's something the players should be aware of – the track record for guys going over to Mexico from the United States, and actually contributing, isn't there. And they're locking some of these guys in, and then that's it. And for us, I urge the players to keep it open, keep it open and see what happens, keep developing. But any player wants to feel wanted, right?”
"We can do more"
Berhalter was in the nation’s capital to take part in the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit, joining US soccer federation president Cindy Parlow Cone, US soccer foundation president and CEO Ed Foster-Simeon and NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman for a keynote discussion about making youth soccer in the United States more accessible and inclusive.
While Foster-Simeon hailed the diversity and unity of Berhalter’s squad, all acknowledged soccer’s lingering perception as an upper-middle-class suburban sport and expressed a desire to foster more representation from and deeper connections with communities of color.
“I just think we can do more. I would like better access for under-served communities. I'd like better coaching in under-served communities. It's not good enough just to put a ball there or a field there and say, go play, because it's not going to happen. I would like us to be intentional about how we're going into these communities and setting up programs, whether that's in school, whether that's after school,” said Berhalter.
He cited the example of the 10-acre facility being built on Chicago’s West Side by Intentional Sports, a non-profit led by soccer player turned actor Andy McDermott.
“It's going to be great, it’s for baseball, soccer, other sports, and it's an after-school program, getting the kids off the streets into a program where they do their homework, they learn to play, and that type of thing just needs to be more widespread,” Berhalter said.
"I worry about all my players"
Pepi might be Berhalter’s most prominent Mexican-American success story. The El Paso native represented both Mexico and the United States at the youth level before choosing the USMNT and almost immediately scoring some clutch goals in the early stages of their Octagonal World Cup qualifying campaign.
The 19-year-old striker has struggled to score for both club and country since moving to German side Augsburg in a landmark transfer deal over the winter, however, amid a wider goal drought among his No. 9 corps.
Berhalter wouldn’t be drawn too much about Pepi specifically – “I worry about all my players,” he said – and pointed to the case of Olivier Giroud at Russia 2018 as an example of an attacking spearhead being successful even without goals.
“Listen, I don't want to underplay this. But France won the World Cup without a striker scoring a goal. It could be done, right? It's not that dire,” he said. “Would I want our striker to be scoring more goals? Of course, but it's also up to the team to provide them opportunities to score.”
"The goalkeeper situation"
Similarly, he pumped the brakes on the growing unease among fans and pundits about the Yanks’ unsettled goalkeeping picture.
“With the goalkeeper situation, if the Costa Rica game [on March 30] goes a little differently, no one's talking about that. No one's talking about the goalkeeper situation,” contended Berhalter. “Again, it's short-term memory with people. They're focused on one game.
“Zack [Steffen] is a very good goalkeeper, he's done really good games in the past, he's going to continue to do good games. Matt Turner’s going to get back into form and keep doing his thing. Gaga [Slonina]’s a young, up-and-coming goalkeeper, we have Sean Johnson, who’s been strong in the league. Ethan Horvath’s contributed well. I'm confident that when November comes around, one of those guys will be able to do a great job and play.”