Editor's note: This story originally ran last year during Hispanic Heritage Month on Sep. 16, 2022.
Looking back on it now, it must have been really stressful for my parents.
I was 13 and playing for my local youth soccer club, San Diego Surf. I’d always loved the sport and was pretty good at an early age. Even back when I was like 6, 7 years old, I was often scoring eight, nine goals a game, and so I “played up,” moving to older age groups. I had shown enough promise to be moved up to Surf’s Under-15 team, and I was trying to get on to their U-16 academy squad. But the coaches had told my parents that they wanted me to wait another year.
Just across the border in Mexico, a new club was making headlines. Club Tijuana had earned promotion into Liga MX, and they were about to win an Apertura championship in just their second year in the top flight, with Mexican-American players like Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona and Greg Garza in their starting XI. Xolos were also recruiting young talent for their academy, and I got invited to join.
At that point, my dad thought the best route would be to go to Tijuana, where we trained every day of the week instead of three or four days a week. All those extra hours of training that I would get with Xolos would put me ahead of everybody else. That was his reasoning, but I didn’t really find out until later on. I was just like, I just want to play, wherever.
My dad knew I had talent. But I didn't really think about it that way. For me, soccer was always just fun, and I was good at it. I’m the middle child of three boys: we were always bullying each other, picking on each other, playing soccer in the backyard, running everywhere. I don't know how my mom dealt with us – we broke everything! My kitchen windows were shattered all the time because they were facing the backyard and I was always kicking a ball against the wall. I can still hear my mom yelling at me about it.
So I joined Xolos’ academy. It was super exciting to be crossing the border every day to be training with this great team, working my way up the ladder at a club who had just been crowned champions. Trainings were really, really hard compared to what I was used to, and I still had to do my schoolwork online later in the day.
But I loved every day of it. It was an awesome experience. Also a crazy experience, when I think back. Waking up before dawn to cross from San Diego into Tijuana every day by myself at such a young age, it was probably something stressful for my parents. But I think we all knew what it would take for me to make it – and 10 years later, here I am, thanks to all that.
Both sides of a Concacaf rivalry
I was born and raised in San Diego, but Mexico is in my blood. My parents are both from Guadalajara, and the first jersey I ever had was a Chivas one. I grew up in a household where we only spoke Spanish; all our food was always Mexican. So I feel my Mexican heritage and culture very strongly. And even though I grew up in the United States and have love for this nation, I also feel a lot of love for Mexico.
All those feelings got wrapped up into my career as I got older. I spent time in both countries’ youth national team systems, starting with Mexico’s. I spent about a year with their U-17s at the start of that U-17 World Cup cycle, but then I missed two camps because of an injury, and they told me I wasn’t going to make the El Tri roster for the Concacaf qualifying tournament. That hurt. I remember thinking that I just had to play in those qualifiers, no matter what it took, and my parents supported that. I mean, it was a big, big opportunity and I didn’t want to miss it.
I’m sure my family would have loved to see me wear their homeland’s colors, to represent Mexico. But it’s also a career decision. A soccer career is not long. It goes by fast and before you know it, it's over. As an athlete, you’ve got to make sure you do what's best for yourself and your future, and my dad was the first to remind me of that. So when the United States called me and gave me the chance to earn my spot on their U-17 team, it was an easy decision to make.
I was so excited when I made it onto the final roster for the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. I had teammates who would later move on to the senior national team like Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre and Christian Pulisic, and though we didn’t make it out of a really difficult group that included Croatia, Nigeria and the host country, I led the team in scoring. That opened some doors for me, especially because I broke into Tijuana’s first team around the same time.
My growth in MLS
Europe has always been my objective. I've always wanted to go and play in the best leagues in the world, to perform for the best teams in the world. We had a couple of trials in place, but Atlanta United had put an offer on the table. It was something secure, a solid offer, whereas there were so many unknowns in Europe – it was unsure. Anything can happen, all depending on if the team over there has a spot for you, if they need what you’re bringing to the table.
Joining Atlanta in 2017 started my journey in MLS. And while it was a blast to be part of a championship team that won week after week, Josef Martinez was the main striker there and I didn’t play much. When FC Cincinnati traded for me for 2020, it got even tougher, because the team was struggling and I still wasn’t getting much time on the field, just five or 10 minutes here and there. It was definitely very frustrating.
Fast-forward to where we are now, and everything’s changed at FCC. The new coaching staff under Pat Noonan and our general manager, Chris Albright, have come in and completely flipped this place around. It's been unbelievable to be part of this year’s group, and I’m thankful for the opportunity they gave me to prove myself as a starter.
There’s this unreal hunger that the whole team has now, that we lacked in the past. We already had belief that we could compete in MLS, that we had the talent, and now the work ethic is there, too. It's been amazing, honestly, and I'm so happy to be part of this team. We’re chasing a spot in the playoffs, and once you get there, you never know – anything can happen and it’s all about winning. We’ve just got to sneak in.
USMNT vs. El Tri
Mexicans are known for their hard work, their persistence, their dedication, and I think I have that in me. I'm someone who doesn't give up and I'll keep working until the stars align for me. So all I can do is keep doing that, and hopefully it will open doors for me at the international level.
I’m still open to both El Tri and the USMNT, and it would be an honor to represent either country. I’ve got a lot of passion for my Mexican culture, but a lot of the US players are my friends and I feel like I’d be very comfortable there and fit in right away.
First and foremost, though, I’ve got to give my all for Cincinnati, win and make history here.