In January 2018, shortly after the dismal end of its World Cup qualifying campaign, the U.S. men’s soccer team suffered its second catastrophe in less than six months: Jonathan González, an 18-year-old, California-born midfield prospect, announced he was switching his international allegiances to Mexico.
González had just guided the Mexican club Monterrey to the best record in Liga MX. He had played for three different U.S. youth teams as a teenager. He was supposed to sit at the back of the American midfield for the next 15 years, joining the likes of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams in driving the U.S. men’s national team for multiple World Cup cycles.
But González had been left off the youthful roster for the team’s November friendlies, without so much as a phone call from the USMNT’s transitional regime. Mexico, his parents’ native country, took advantage of U.S. Soccer’s lassitude and swooped in and got him to sign. For a fan base still reeling from qualification failure, it was akin to a kick in the shin after getting punched in the gut. It looked like players who had a choice weren’t choosing the U.S. anymore.
Now, a little more than three years later, what appeared to be a sign of ongoing American soccer misery now seems like a short-term blip. González has made just three appearances for the senior Mexico team since 2018, and started just twice last season for Monterrey. While there’s plenty of time for his career path to swing back upwards, his recent struggles are an important reminder that very few players are sure bets at 18. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, meanwhile, is presiding over a squad that’s now full of European-based talent, and he’s shown recruitment chops that would make the nation of Nick Saban and Nick Fury proud.
In 2019, Berhalter secured the services of then-Ajax, now-Barcelona fullback Sergiño Dest despite interest from the Netherlands, where Dest was born to an American father and Dutch mother. And just last week, Yunus Musah, a gifted 18-year-old midfielder for the La Liga club Valencia, pledged his services to the USMNT, choosing to represent the U.S. instead of Ghana, England, or Italy.
Dest and Musah, like González, have a long way to go before becoming finished products. But in a global sense, the early identification and college-sports-style recruitment of players who are eligible to play for multiple nations has never been more important. And luckily, the U.S. has never been better at it.
For years, players would be eligible to suit up internationally only for countries where they, their parents, or their grandparents were born, or where they had lived for five years after the age of 18. Much of Jürgen Klinsmann’s success recruiting German-American players fell under these old rules. John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and Timmy Chandler were all born in Germany with at least one American parent.
FIFA opened up new horizons of recruitment last year when it made it easier for players to be eligible for nations where they lived as children, and to change their affiliations as long as they meet certain criteria. The player pools have now flooded over, and unless FIFA builds new levees that keep everyone locked into their countries of birth, every nation on the planet will be fighting to collect as much eligible talent as possible.
Musah, for instance, was born in the U.S. to Ghanaian parents, moved to Italy until the age of 9, then moved to England, where he would make more than 30 appearances for English youth national teams. He picked the U.S. anyway, and looks primed for a major role in the midfield––which is missing Adams and McKennie this window––for this week’s friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland.
Musah may or may not be a stalwart player for the U.S. He thrilled in the November friendlies, showing a willingness to receive the ball in traffic and beat the first man. But Musah doesn’t get to play that way for Valencia. Yes, he has soaked up a lot of minutes this season as a wide midfielder in the team’s conservative system. But he’s started just once since the end of January and has one goal and zero assists all season, on just five shots and nine key passes leading to a shot, all low numbers for someone playing in his position in La Liga. Berhalter thinks he can be better playing a different style for his newly chosen country, but he may not be as plug-and-play as he looked in November.
Nevertheless, Musah is a young talent worth betting on, and he’s now part of a roster that’s getting deeper by the month. Jordan Siebatcheu, who has scored nine goals in the Swiss league this season, picked the U.S. over France and Cameroon earlier in March. And there are several tantalizing players on the U.S. roster this month who aren’t yet officially in the fold. (FIFA rules stipulate that you’re not “cap-tied” to a nation until you’ve played for that country in an official, senior-level competition; friendlies don’t count.) Forward Daryl Dike was born in Oklahoma but could still represent Nigeria, as his brother Bright and his sister Courtney already have. Midfielder/defender Owen Otasowie, who was born in New York, grew up in England, and plays for Wolverhampton in the Premier League, could play for England or Nigeria. Nicholas Gioacchini—born in Kansas City, moved to Italy, came back to the U.S. and went to high school in Maryland—could play for Italy or Jamaica.
Every national team camp is part recruitment drive now. The USMNT won over Musah, in part, because he developed great relationships with the likes of Dest, McKennie, Adams, and Gio Reyna during a national team camp in November. And the U.S. is hardly the only nation that’s amping up its recruitment efforts. Jamaica, the national team’s opponent on Thursday, has reached out to approximately 10 England-born players with Jamaican ancestry. Many of them are on the roster to face the U.S., but some of the biggest targets are still hoping to fight their way into the more prestigious England side. World Cup qualification is certainly more likely for Jamaica with these players, but nothing can guarantee a successful campaign in CONCACAF, and the window to integrate the new signings is small.
Berhalter, for his part, has moved on to his most demanding recruitment battle yet, for the services of 18-year-old LA Galaxy playmaker Efraín Álvarez. Álvarez, born in Los Angeles to parents born in Mexico, signed his first professional contract at 15 and scored 12 goals in 17 appearances for the Galaxy’s reserve team as a 16-year-old. In 2019, his then Galaxy teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic called him “by far the biggest talent” in the league, praising his sense for the geometry and the timing of the game.
Álvarez has trained with the full U.S. national team, but has yet to make a senior-level appearance. This window, he’s been called up by Mexico. Berhalter told reporters that he encouraged Álvarez to accept the Mexico call-up, so he could make an informed decision about which nation he wants to represent. Mexico manager Tata Martino has said that Álvarez is “very committed to our project.”
At this stage, Álvarez’s career could go in a million different ways. Thus far, his tremendous production against lesser opposition hasn’t yet translated to MLS, where he has one goal and five assists in 30 inconsistent appearances. Even as he praised Álvarez, Ibrahimovic told the teenager that he needed to improve his fitness. Last week, new Galaxy coach Greg Vanney told reporters he wanted Álvarez to understand “what he needs to do so that he can take advantage of all that special quality that he has.”
Regardless of which nation he chooses to represent, it will be good for soccer in the U.S. if Álvarez makes it. Unlike Dest and Musah, he was born, raised, and developed domestically. Any success he has is an indication that the American development system is working. German-American players like Fabian Johnson and John Brooks helped patch over the lost generation the U.S. failed to develop. Now, the U.S. talent pipeline is flowing again, to the point where other countries, even big ones, may come here looking for eligible dual-nationals. Now, U.S. coaches aren’t just playing offense, poaching players who learned the game in other nations. They’re having to play defense, too, as they failed to do with González, and as they’re trying to do with the likes of Álvarez and Daryl Dike.
The double thrill for the fan base of winning the allegiance of a young prospect for what can amount to his entire career––the fact that you simultaneously help your chances and hurt your future opponents’––obscures how much of that excitement is based on future potential, not current ability. It also, inevitably, means that teenage athletes will be seen as commodities rather than people. Three years ago, U.S. Soccer didn’t reach out to Jonathan González at all. This week, Efraín Álvarez’s father said that the U.S. and Mexican federations were “traumatizing” his son by contacting him too frequently.
Few of us, thankfully, are locked into the trajectory we were on as teenagers, but young players (and the coaches who are desperate to secure them) must make decisions that will stay with them for the rest of their careers. For all the fuss that comes with a commitment, players like Álvarez and Musah might never transform the fortunes of a national side. But with all of their promise, they’re already players no nation can afford to lose.