GUADALAJARA, Mexico – When Club Tijuana’s Joe Benny Corona was called up to Mexico’s Under-22 squad back in August, there was an overriding tone in the coverage in the Mexican press that suggested the Los Angeles-born playmaker had definitively chosen Mexico over his country of birth.
Problem was, Corona never said that himself. In fact, if you talk to the bilingual, bicultural forward, he’s open to any of three teams for whom he is eligible: Mexico, the United States or El Salvador.
“I want to be an important part of a national team for some years and go to a World Cup,” Corona told MLSsoccer.com in a plush hotel here last weekend.
And the US are still very much in the picture, the 21-year-old admitted.
“I spoke to [US national team assistant] Martin Vasquez right after the call-up I had with the [Mexican Under-22] team,” Corona revealed. “He told me they are looking at me. It is pretty positive feedback to keep working.”
Despite playing for Mexico in a warm-up friendly against Chile, Corona didn’t make the final cut for El Tri’s Pan Am Games squad. Does that, coupled with the ego-boosting call from Vasquez, mean the pendulum has swung slightly in favor of the Stars and Stripes? Corona already seems to have the role of coy diplomat down pat.
“I would be more than glad to represent a national team that wants to give me the opportunity to play,” he said.
What will give heart to USMNT fans and those who — like manager Jurgen Klinsmann — see dual nationals as a vital part of the future of US Soccer, is that Vasquez’s call was well received by Corona.
The Jalisco-born Vasquez caused quite a storm as a player in the 1990s when he played first for Mexico and then switched his eligibility to the United States – the first person to do so – and, like Corona, was brought up on both sides of the border.
Explained Corona: “It’s very good to talk to someone like that who understands my position and he gives me a lot of confidence to keep doing what I am doing.”
National team call-ups may dominate headlines about Corona, but he is well aware that heavy minutes at the club level is the building block, as Klinsmann has stated repeatedly. In that respect, it’s been a turbulent couple of months.
After preseason hype and a lot of money spent on bringing in new imports, freshly promoted Tijuana have just nine points from 12 games, propped up from the bottom of the Mexican Primera División table only by Atlas.
Former Tijuana coach Joaquín del Olmo – who reared Corona into the first team as the club battled up the second-division table and had him as a regular starter for the first part of this season – was fired as last month after a poor start that has left the specter of relegation hanging over the club. Under new coach Antonio “Turco” Mohamed, Corona has yet to start a game for Xolos.
Then there is the change of position. Mohamed sees Corona as more of a No. 10 than a winger and has played him in that position in recent substitute appearances.
Corona is enjoying the new role – he cites Zinedine Zidane as one of his playing idols – but needs time to adapt and faces stiff competition.
“[Mohamed] tells me that with my quality and vision of the game, I should be able to fit into that position very well and I do feel very comfortable there,” said Corona. “It’s a matter of getting used to it, and he’s been giving me the confidence.”
The blip over the last few weeks cannot hide the swift career rise Corona has enjoyed. Just 18 months ago, he was playing in the Mexican third division against teams like Heroes de Caborca. Now, he stays in five-star hotels and plays at stadiums like Estadio Azteca and Estadio Jalisco, which are part of the folklore of the game in this part of the world.
“It all started as a dream,” said Corona, shortly after being given a new pair of boots by his sponsor. “It’s something very special how everything has been happening so fast.”
Like many other pros, Corona would love to play one day in Spain or England, but currently has a more short-term objective.
“I am in the age range for the Olympics, so that’s my next goal,” he said.
But for whom? As if the answer weren’t already a foregone conclusion, Corona played diplomat once again:
“A national team,” he smiled.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.