For one, it put to rest any claims that the U.S. player identification system wasn’t neglecting Latino talent.
We would never have heard of New Mexico’s Edgar Castillo or Texan Jose Francisco Torres if they hadn’t moved south of the border as teens. Both have won multiple titles in Mexico and helped the USA win its last Gold Cup, in 2013.
And it also created a wider range of opportunities for young talent, especially vital a decade ago -- before MLS clubs starting investing millions of dollars into youth development and providing cost-free elite youth soccer, and before the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
Historically, Mexican-American players were marginalized for various reasons. The pay-to-play U.S. youth soccer industry shut out countless talented players, regardless of ethnicity. College coaches were hardly interested in recruiting Latino players. And having the majority of influential U.S. coaches being from a Northern European school of coaching created another barrier.
Then a new door opened for the young Latino player.
In 1998, the Mexican government changed its laws to allow dual citizenship, thus enabling U.S.-born Mexican-Americans to obtain Mexican citizenship. Before that, Mexican clubs were unlikely to use their limited foreign player spots on U.S. products over South Americans.
Mexican clubs, well aware of the rise of the U.S. game, deduced there must be Mexican-Americans worth assessing. The success of Castillo and Torres encouraged them even more. Castillo, who played for Mexico before switching to the USA, won league titles with Santos and Tijuana. In addition to his two league titles, Torres, who was also courted by the Mexican national team program, won three Concacaf Champions League titles. Castillo and Torres did not cost a transfer fee, as would an Argentine, Chilean or Colombian.
Castillo moved to Mexico at age 18, but Torres was only 16 when he went to Tigres. At age 15, Arizona product Ventura Alvarado, who has 13 caps since debuting for the USA in 2015, moved to Club America, for which he started in its 2014 Liga MX Apertura final win.
Many other Mexican-Americans under age 18 have signed with Mexican clubs, including Californian Edwin Lara, who starred on the USA’s U-17 national team before moving to Pachuca and playing for Mexico at the 2015 U-17 World Cup. Joe Gallardo, who played for the USA at the same U-17 World Cup, moved from San Diego’s Nomads to Monterrey in 2012.
Now comes the news, reported by ESPNFC.com's Tom Marshall, that Liga MX clubs are to stop importing Mexican-Americans under age 18 because it violates FIFA's rules for international transfers involving minors.
FIFA introduced Article 19, “Protection of Minors,” in 2001 in reaction to what was described as human trafficking in soccer. The examples came mainly from African and South American children who were promised stardom in Europe but, in the extreme cases, ended up living in squalor in faraway foreign countries away from their families.
In Marshall’s follow-up, he writes that Mexican soccer federation (FMF) president Decio de Maria has admitted that Liga MX clubs may have violated FIFA's transfer rules as they stand, “but is seeking clarity from the governing body due to the complex situation surrounding dual Mexico-U.S. nationals.”
"FIFA knows about our reality and we are in a process of [reaching an] understanding," De Maria said. "I repeat, the rule is made generally and here we are talking about something specific that isn't comparable with clubs over there [in Europe]."
(Tijuana Xolos can continue to recruit in Southern California under the current regulations because Article 19 allows players to sign with a foreign club if the player lives no more than 30 miles from the border and the club is no more than 30 miles from the border.)
FIFA’s rules on the transfer of minors also make an exception for European Union countries, lowering the age to 16.
Alianza de Futbol in 2008 launched a scouting program for U.S. Latino talent that attracts scouts from nearly all Liga MX clubs and Mexico’s national team program, and also invites scouts from MLS clubs, U.S. Soccer and college. Numerous players under age 18 have signed with Liga MX clubs via Alianza, which released a statement on FIFA applying Article 19 to Mexican-Americans that includes:
“While FIFA’s Article 19 was created for very good reasons, exceptions were created, also for very good reasons. And now it’s time for FIFA to create another exception for player transfers between the U.S. and Mexico.
“All of the players under 18 receiving interest from Liga MX teams are dual citizens with both U.S. and Mexican citizenship or just Mexican citizenship. We do not believe that it was or is FIFA’s intent to deprive anyone of opportunities to pursue their soccer dreams in countries of which they are a citizen.
“Imagine being a Mexican-American living in Los Angeles, a lifelong Liga MX fan and having FIFA tell you that your 16-year-old son can’t play for a team in Liga MX in the country of your birth, of which your son is also a citizen. We don’t believe that this is consistent with the spirit of Article 19, or the situations for which it was created.”
As any case, in any country, only a very small percentage of players who join a pro youth academy succeed to make the first team. U.S. clubs, no doubt frustrated with losing talent, complain of greedy agents scouring the USA for players with promises that don’t meet expectations.
But at the same time, Mexican clubs, whose youth teams play in highly competitive national leagues, do have a good reputation of developing talent, as reflected by Mexico’s success at youth World Cups.
There’s also no doubt that Mexican clubs have unearthed U.S. talent that had been neglected. And the U.S. national team program benefits from the experience of players who join Mexican clubs with solid development programs and return to play for the USA.
What matters most, of course, is what’s best for the player. Even with the Development Academy, and with MLS having vastly improved its youth programs and reserve team system, there will be players without access to those clubs. There will continue to be Latino talent more appreciated south of the border than in the USA.
So is FIFA protecting or impeding young Mexican-American players by banning them from moving before age 18?
FIFA claiming the jurisdiction to deny a person a chance to pursue a career in the nation of which he’s a citizen is in itself worthy of scrutiny.
What if you were a U.S. citizen living abroad -- in Mexico, or Africa or Europe, or anywhere -- and you wanted your U.S. citizen child to move the USA to take an apprenticeship – perhaps even while living near extended family -- how would you react if told you didn’t have the right to make that happen?
Yet FIFA does have the power to dictate transfer rules between pro clubs because the clubs have to follow the sport’s world governing body’s regulations.
A sensible compromise would be to amend Article 19 for the Mexico-USA situation as it does for EU nations, and allow moves at the age of 16.
To enforce Article 19’s rule on Mexican-American players at age 18 is a disservice to Latino players unless we’re sure that they have sufficient opportunities within the United States. I do not believe, although there’s been significant progress, that we’re there yet.