The Mexico national team’s Gold Cup squad is rich with talent, and with the United States electing to bring a relatively unproven squad to the tournament, pundits have concluded that El Tri have more weapons at their disposal in Sunday’s final (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN) at Allegiant Stadium outside Las Vegas.
But one name rang out more than any other in Saturday’s press availabilities: Rogelio Funes Mori.
“I said already, he is one of the best players in the tournament,” US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter of the Monterrey dangerman. “Really like the player, really like what type of striker he is, lethal in the penalty box … and he's a handful. And for us, it's going to be a challenge.”
It’s not all that often a national team faces a fierce rival whose most dangerous player could well be wearing their own colors instead. But that scenario has been discussed and debated for the past decade about Funes Mori and his twin brother Ramiro, an Argentina international defender who's currently playing for Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr.
The duo spent much of their childhoods in Arlington, Texas after an economic crisis drove their family out of Argentina; their father Miguel was an aspiring pro footballer in his younger days and vowed to keep them playing the beautiful game in their new surroundings. Rogelio vaulted into wider attention when he won Sueño MLS, a nationwide talent search competition aired on Univision, in 2008.
Both were invited to join FC Dallas’ newborn youth system, with now-Orlando City SC boss Oscar Pareja – then a young coach helping build what would later become MLS’ flagship academy – among those to highly rate them. That’s where the story gets cloudier.
The Funes Mori boys quickly became the subject of intense scouting and recruitment from multiple big clubs around the world, and did not stick with FCD long. Some allege they were simply not offered the opportunity at a professional contract extended to most Sueño winners (whose ranks also include LA Galaxy fullback Jorge “Sueño” Villafaña). Others say documentation issues prevented that process from proceeding as planned.
Is there a world in which “RFM” came of age as a footballer in the United States instead, and perhaps would’ve chosen to represent the Stars and Stripes? That’s a fascinating hypothetical to ponder, albeit one the current USMNT themselves have little time to entertain.
“No matter who plays, we have young center backs and we're going to have to make it difficult for him,” said Berhalter of Funes Mori. “Excellent player, history of scoring, typical No. 9 type of player. And for us, it's how do we make it as difficult as possible for him. It's going to be a good test, a difficult test. But I can guarantee our guys will be up for the challenge.”
Unless the USMNT spring a surprise like a return to a three-player backline, it’s expected that the green center-back duo of Miles Robinson and James Sands and Matt Turner, a goalkeeper early in his own international career, will be tasked with blunting Mexico’s chief attacking threat with the region’s top trophy on the line. And they’ve earned the chance, posting the event’s best defensive record to date.
“I won't get too far into the plan for stopping him, however, watching him in this tournament and watching him over the last few seasons, the guy is just a killer when he's inside the box,” said Turner on Saturday. “He finds space, he's got a great touch and he can finish right foot, left foot and with his head. So we understand that he’s a very dangerous player and we're looking forward to a great match.”