Gregg Berhalter, USMNT Leave an Open Door for Young Dual-National Prospects

Not all with options will choose to represent the USA for various reasons, but that's not stopping the U.S. from turning over plenty of stones and providing opportunities.
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Some dual or multinational players have an exotic or glamorous aura, especially if they were born, raised or developed overseas in countries whose footballing pedigree exceeds the USA’s. Yunus Musah is a prime example. Yes, the midfielder was born in New York City. But he spent his childhood in Italy and his prime developmental years at Arsenal. He captained England’s U-18 national team and at 17 (he just turned 18), he was already making an impact at Valencia.

When U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff were able to entice Musah to join the squad for last month’s camp and friendlies in Wales and Austria, it represented a bit of a coup. It raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic and whet the appetites of U.S. fans who already were excited about a generation or prospects rising at top European clubs.

Musah also is an exception. The recruitment battle for dual-nationals typically doesn’t involve young men who are so well traveled, or who were brought up so far away. It’s usually more of a local affair, a backyard brawl between the USA and Mexico (and perhaps other Latin American nations) over players with deep ties to adjacent homes and histories on both sides of the border.

Berhalter said last month that navigating that issue was part of the job description of the U.S. manager. It’s part and parcel of the rivalry. Furthermore, he said, it’s a part of life for his Mexican counterparts as well.

“Mexico is doing is the exact same thing. They’re actively recruiting every single one of our players,” Berhalter said. “So when you hear about conversations when we talk to our guys, Mexico’s spoken to all those guys and they’re actively recruiting them. I think it’s part of international soccer.”

It’s certainly a big part of the story surrounding the roster Berhalter announced Monday for the ad hoc December camp that’ll conclude with next Wednesday’s friendly against El Salvador in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Berhalter counted seven dual-nationals on his list, not including Mexican-American FC Cincinnati midfielder Frankie Amaya, who had to withdraw after testing positive for the coronavirus. His replacement, Orlando City midfielder Andrés Perea, was born in Tampa but played in the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups for Colombia. His City teammate, striker Daryl Dike, is eligible for both the USA and Nigeria, while forward Ayo Akinola of Toronto FC can play for the USA, Nigeria or Canada. They’ll be joined in camp by Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa, Portland Timbers defender Marco Farfan, LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo and midfielder Efrain Alvarez, who are all also eligible for Mexico.

USA call-ups Efrain Alvarez, Julian Araujo and Marco Farfan

From left: LA Galaxy's Efrain Alvarez and Julian Araujo, Portland Timbers' Marco Farfan.

Alvarez, 18, is the most intriguing name on the list, and likely the biggest prize. His background is familiar—born in L.A. to Mexican parents. His international career path, however, already has taken a couple turns. In the spring of 2016, Alvarez captained the U.S. U-15 team at a tournament in Argentina. But then he crossed to the other side of the rivalry and the following year, helped Mexico’s U-15 boys to the Concacaf title. From there, it was on to the 2019 U-17 World Cup, where El Tri won the silver medal and Alvarez scored four goals.

Although he remained with the Galaxy, it seemed like Alvarez was a part of Mexico’s long-term plan. In September, Mexico manager Gerardo Martino said Alvarez “will be a [Mexico] national team player,” and that there was “no need to rush him,” according to ESPN.

Until a player is cap-tied, however, Berhalter is undeterred. Although Alvarez started just six league games for the Galaxy this season, his talent doesn’t seem to be in dispute. No less an authority than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who never seemed that impressed with the majority of his LA teammates, said last year that, “He's by far the biggest talent from everybody [in MLS].”

Ibrahimovic said it was, “Because he thinks football. He has that football in him, and it's natural. It didn't come by him training or something. … He goes on the field, and you see when he plays, he's all natural—the way he thinks, the way he moves the ball, the way he touches the ball. By far the best player in MLS. He just needs his game time, and he will show it also.”

Berhalter is slightly more reserved in his assessment, but after seeing Alvarez train on Tuesday, the manager said he was “a guy you want him to be around the ball—very creative player, has a good change of pace, very good in tight spaces,” who could play as an attacking midfielder, a winger or a center forward.

“What I’ve seen from him is a maturity and the development as a player over this last year,” Berhalter added. “He looks much more physically fit. He’s [been] able to impact games longer this season, and it's unfortunate he didn’t play more.”

Efrain Alvarez represents Mexico at the U-17 World Cup

What’s less certain than Alvarez’s potential is why he switched from the USA to Mexico in the first place, and whether he’s considering switching back. The latter will be more complex. Since he represented Mexico at a FIFA event, he’d have to file an official request for a permanent switch to the USA. There would be no going back. Berhalter said that as of Tuesday, Alvarez had not started that process. That means he’d be ineligible to play against El Salvador. But his acceptance of Berhalter’s invitation certainly is a sign that the door isn’t shut, even though he trained with Mexico's U-20s just last month.

“I guess you could take it one of two ways: you could say, ‘He played for us and then he played for Mexico, and we're going to hold that against him and we’re never going to call him in again and we’ll let that be that.’ But that’s not the way we look at it,” Berhalter said.

“You’re talking about extremely young players. You’re talking about players with cultural ties to other countries where emotion is involved, and I can understand a player making a decision like that one time in his career. For us, again, all it is about is saying, ‘There is an open door,’ and we want to create an environment that players want to be in. We want to attract good quality payers and then the rest is up to the players to decide in the end what they’re going to pursue.”

By focusing heavily on culture and chemistry, and by highlighting the national team’s collective youth and enthusiasm, Berhalter hopes to offer an environment that will entice a commitment. Musah seemed happy with his experience, and now the coaches will hope that Alvarez and the rest—Martino also said he has recruited Araujo—get a similar impression.

“They’re still young players. They still have the world in front of them and all we want to do is bring them into our environment and show them what our environment is about, and then it’s going to be up to them to make a decision,” Berhalter said. “We’ll be fine with whatever decision they make, but I think it’s important that players are able to see what we do and how we work.”

He added, “I think it’s smart for a player to see what’s out there and see what’s available. … To me, this is isn’t an unusual process and again, all we’re looking to do is to create a good environment for players that they want to play in.”