As the sun rises on a new Liga MX season, Jonathan Gonzalez looks to build on a stellar 2017 Apertura campaign with Monterrey, in which he proved himself to be not only one of the league's rising stars but also one of its top players, period. The new season also comes with him at the center of the latest USA-Mexico international soccer tug of war.
For those not familiar with Gonzalez, the 18-year-old California-born midfielder established himself as one of the more consistent, reliable players in all of Liga MX while starting regularly for league power Monterrey. Los Rayados wound up losing to Tigres in the playoff final and winning Copa MX, and Gonzalez rose to prominence, being declared as a league Best XI performer all while increasing his appeal for the international level with his stout play in central midfield. And that's where things start to get messy.
As a dual national, Gonzalez can represent the USA or Mexico at the senior international level. He's played for the USA on the youth level sparingly before, which is why, according to Goal.com, he would need to apply for a one-time FIFA switch if he is to play for Mexico, even in a friendly such as the one El Tri is playing in late January against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Doing so would lock him into Mexico for the remainder of his international career, though playing in a friendly for the USA at this point would not change his status one way or the other.
But let's dial it back a bit. Why, if Gonzalez is so good, has he not been called into a senior U.S. camp before? And why, if he seemed committed to representing the U.S. before, as has been reported, should the USA fret at all?
To answer the first question, one has to look at the USA's World Cup qualifying stumbles. Turning to Bruce Arena as Jurgen Klinsmann's replacement always meant limiting the wild cards and unknown variables. Arena, for better or worse, had always shown little interest in stepping out of the box and instead was more comfortable going with "his guys." And with the U.S. desperate for points after the winless start two Novembers ago, Arena calling on known commodities for the must-have games in the fall was the surest bet one could have made.
Going back even further, the U.S. could have theoretically called on Gonzalez for the Gold Cup, which would have cap-tied him, but he hadn't yet made his mark at Monterrey. In fact, it was because of the Gold Cup, and a lineup opening at Monterrey, that Gonzalez even got his chance to begin with–and he took it well. The argument could be made that he should have been tabbed for the October qualifiers after a couple of months of impressive play, but, like in the case of Schalke rising star Weston McKennie, Arena was never going to turn the midfield keys over to players he'd never coached before for the most important games of the cycle. Hindsight is 20-20 on that one, but the thinking at the time was understandable.
All of this brings us to the post-qualifying fallout. Gonzalez told Soccer America this week that he was never contacted by U.S. Soccer regarding November's meaningless, lame-duck friendly vs. Portugal, which came a few weeks after the Americans' shocking elimination from World Cup qualifying. With an interim coach, Dave Sarachan, leading a team mixed of untested youth players and largely overlooked veterans for the game, it could have been a chance to give Gonzalez a look. But with the Liga MX playoffs on the horizon and absolutely no competitive element to the match, there was ample reason to leave Gonzalez behind–just like players who were still involved in the MLS playoffs at the time. Sarachan shouldn't be taking the fall for that, though a phone call just to touch base could have prevented any future uneasiness.
As for the answer to the second question, the USA's failure means another competitive match in which Gonzalez could be cap tied and prohibited from playing for Mexico won't be played until the new CONCACAF League of Nations, which commences after this summer's World Cup. And until then, there might not be a permanent head coach in charge. With the U.S. Soccer election next month resulting in a new president for the first time in over a decade and a potential alteration to the technical structure for the national teams, the U.S. men are in an unprecedented period of limbo and uncertainty in the modern era.
So, Gonzalez has a choice to make: Does he see a path to the World Cup with Mexico this summer, file the switch and flip to El Tri? Or does he trust that however U.S. Soccer's transition period shakes out, he'll be valued enough to be part of a rising crop of midfielders that includes McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams–all teenagers poised for big roles in the 2022 cycle?
There's also the Juan Carlos Osorio speculation wild card. Plenty have wondered whether his next step after leading El Tri at the World Cup will be coaching the U.S. men. Without a president or USMNT technical staff in place, it's impossible to know whether he'd even be considered, and he if succeeds with Mexico amid a tough group this summer and wins over his doubters, perhaps he's even blessed with a new contract. But if Osorio does want the USA job, would he consider trying to flip Gonzalez to Mexico now if it could come back to haunt him in the long run? It's a stretch to think about now, but it's worth keeping in the back of the mind–especially for such a meticulous planner like Osorio.
Of course, nobody knows how players' international careers will pan out. USA-Mexico tugs of war in the past involving the likes of Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo and Miguel Angel Ponce haven't exactly been essential to the success or failures of either program. But all signs point to Gonzalez being on the path to stardom, and this is a tug of war in which the U.S. hopes to be the one left holding the rope.
Should Gonzalez opt to play for Mexico, the retroactive finger-pointing will be plentiful, and yes, there will be plenty of blame to go around. But it won't just be a simple case of mindful negligence. The confluence of factors and some awkward timing will surely be a significant piece of the puzzle.