For USMNT fans that were hoping to put the disastrous year of 2017 behind them, 2018 has not gotten off to a great start. This past weekend, Mexican-American midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, a product of the U.S. youth system, announced his intention to file a one-time switch with FIFA and commit to the Mexican National team.
For some, this was just the latest in what seems like an endless string of bad news for U.S. Soccer. Those feelings are understandable. Gonzalez is an 18-year-old holding midfielder who could be the USMNT’s long-term solution in the middle of the park to replace Michael Bradley.
Those are the key words. Gonzalez could go on to be a mainstay in the El Tri midfield that torments the USMNT for years. He could potentially go to the World Cup and light the tournament on fire, parlaying that into a nice European club offer. That situation is exactly what USMNT fans are dreading.
— Jona (@jgonzalezz25) January 9, 2018
Of course, there’s also a chance none of that happens. Prospects are called prospects for a reason. They have high ceilings with loads of potential. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will reach those ceilings, even if they made the Liga MX Best XI this past year.
We all remember Freddy Adu and what happened there. I was at MetLife Stadium in 2011 when Bob Bradley brought on 20-year-old right back Timmy Chandler at halftime against Argentina. I watched him torch a very strong Argentina side down the right flank the entire second half. A few days later, he put in a similar performance against Paraguay and it looked like the U.S. had found their right back of the future. 17-year-old Juan Agudelo scored the equalizer in that game against Argentina and everyone immediately labeled him the USMNT’s next great striker. He didn’t even make the 2014 World Cup team.
Three years later, fans were shocked that Chandler even made the World Cup squad. Two years after that, fans didn’t want to see Chandler anywhere near the field in a U.S. shirt.
In early 2015, U.S. fans were tired of seeing Jurgen Klinsmann constantly giving Bobby Wood looks. He looked terrible and at 22 years old, it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen for him. Fast-forward to the end of 2017 and those same fans are outraged when he’s left out of the starting XI.
That’s the thing about soccer. You never know with players. Some become great early, some show early promise and flame out, and some are just late bloomers. For players, it’s all about the timing of that breakout, and Gonzalez is breaking out at a pretty crucial time for a soccer player.
Personally, I don’t know much about Jonathan Gonzalez. I don’t know how committed he was to playing for either the United States or Mexico. Gonzalez had made the Liga MX Best XI and was brought up in the U.S. youth system. But on a personal level, there’s not one part of me that blames him for making this decision.
Gonzalez may have had his sights set on playing for the USMNT and Mexico turned his head recently. That wouldn’t be at all surprising because Mexico has a major carrot to dangle in front of Gonzalez that the U.S. doesn’t. The World Cup.
That’s not to say that Gonzalez will be representing El Tri in Russia this summer. But by playing for Mexico, Gonzalez will at least have a chance to play at the World Cup this summer. If he stayed with the U.S., he wouldn’t get that chance for at least another five years.
And who really knows what will happen in the next five years? Maybe Gonzalez takes off and becomes a top midfielder. God forbid, maybe he suffers a horrific injury next year and his career is never the same. Or maybe, like many other young prospects, he simply flames out.
Playing in a World Cup is a dream for every footballer in the world. If a decision gives you a better chance at playing in the tournament sooner rather than later, you should make it every time. The reality is you don’t know where you will be in five years.
Think back to 2014. Both the United States and Germany were each trying to get 18-year-old Julian Green to commit to their countries. Not only was Green’s potential sky-high, but Christian Pulisic was just a 15-year-old boy who most people hadn’t heard of. Green was supposed to be the USMNT’s savior.
The U.S. offered Green something Germany couldn’t, a chance to play in the World Cup. He only played for 15 minutes all tournament, but he scored a goal.
These days, Green is wallowing away in the lower divisions of Germany. He’s just another prospect who never hit his potential, but no one will ever be able to take that World Cup goal away from him. At the moment, it’s very easy to say Green would have never sniffed the German national team. But you have to remember, at the time no one was thinking about what Green was. They were thinking about what he could become, and at the time he was very much in Germany’s plans for 2018.
International football is filled with flashes in the pan. Adnan Januzaj broke out for Manchester United in 2013/14 and starred for Belgium in Brazil. His career immediately took a turn for the worse and he hasn’t been capped since 2014. Dimitri Payet has made 37 appearances for France scoring eight goals. 17 of those caps, and seven of those goals, came during 2016. He’s no longer in the national team picture.
That’s the thing about soccer, when you break out is just as, if not more, important as breaking out. Had Julian Green turned 18 a year later, the US and Germany would not have been fighting over him. Had the World Cup been held in 2011, Juan Agudelo would have been starting alongside Jozy Altidore. If Dimitri Payet’s fantastic season at West Ham came one year earlier or later, he’d have never played in a tournament for France.
Jonathan Gonzalez is breaking out at the right time. There’s a World Cup right on the horizon and he’s giving himself a chance to play in it. You can’t blame him for that. Right now, we’re reacting based on what Gonzalez could be. But for what he actually will be, only time will tell.