Gonzalez joined Monterrey in 2014 and last season, at age 18, helped Los Rayados win the Mexican Cup and finish Liga MX runner-up and he was named to the Liga MX Best XI. But this week Gonzalez, who had represented the USA on youth national teams U-14 through U-20, announced he was switching to the Mexican national team. Another young Californian who went to Mexico via Alianza, Pachuca's Edwin Lara -- among The Guardian's 2016 "60 of the Best Young Talents in World Football” -- played for Mexico at the 2015 U-17 World Cup after leaving the USA's U-17 program.
We spoke with Brad Rothenberg, who co-founded Alianza de Futbol in 2004 with Richard Copeland, about the Gonzalez decision, the USA's tug-of-war with Mexico for Mexican-American talent, and U.S. Soccer's relationship with the Latino community.
SOCCER AMERICA: You’ve known Jonathan and his family for five years. What was your reaction to him deciding to play for Mexico?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: I was not surprised even though, as I told his father, I was heartbroken. But the left side of my brain knew it was the best decision for him and so I’m glad he chose Mexico. Jonathan went to Monterrey bleeding red, white and blue.
When I saw Jonathan on New Year’s Eve, he was still undecided and that was only because he is truly a child of the USA. If it was only about futbol, his mind would have been made up long ago. He is appreciated in Mexico as evidenced by his success there. So I really am happy because I care only about player welfare. Alianza is a player-first program and, at its core, is fundamentally different than the system in place under U.S. Soccer.
SA: Many are blaming U.S. Soccer for letting him getaway. How much is it the fault of the Federation and its coaches?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: If anybody at U.S. Soccer thinks they did enough to keep Jonathan, then they should resign before the new Federation president fires them.
Our Federation lost Jonathan either by its own arrogance, apathy or incompetence. You pick it. We screwed up and I’m angry about it. I’ve grown tired of watching our federation neglect this community. We didn’t do enough, not nearly enough, to keep him. And the worst part is that it will continue if wholesale changes aren’t made in the approach to finding talent in this community.
The paucity of coaches employed by U.S. Soccer with an interest in Latino style of play is a problem. Tab Ramos isn’t enough. Bring back Hugo Perez. Jonathan wasn’t the first and will not be the last player lost to the national team until major shifts take place at the federation.
At the same time, where U.S. Soccer fell down, the FMF [Mexican federation] stepped up. This is about the people in Mexico who made him feel worthy and respected. I’ve know Dennis te Kloese [Director of Mexico national teams] for over a decade and he’s a genuine, honest and great guy who never gives up when he believes in something. When talking to Alonso and Mireya, Jonathan’s parents, it was clear that Dennis, [Mexico head coach] Juan Carlos Osorio, coaches and administrators at the FMF had shown Jonathan attention on a personal level that far exceeded the efforts of our Federation.
SA: What did you think about Thomas Rongen, who said he visited the Gonzalez household as U.S. Soccer’s Chief Scout, saying that, "his dad is so Mexican, that he wanted him to represent Mexico and I knew it was a losing battle, probably."
BRAD ROTHENBERG: I’ve known Thomas since I was 17 years old and he’s a great person, but that remark only speaks to how ill-suited the Federation is to connect with the millions of Latinos born and living here who could care much, much more about playing for the USA. I don’t think Thomas knows what “so Mexican” really means. I don’t. Does “so Mexican” mean caring about your son’s welfare, sacrificing for his success, respecting your wife, raising two boys to be happy, kind, thoughtful, hard-working, ethical, optimistic. Well, it sounds like the Gonzalez family is how we “American" families aspire to be.
SA: You invite MLS, college coaches and U.S. Soccer coaches to Alianza events, but is it still predominantly the Liga MX coaches who show the most interest?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: The Mexican clubs helped prove the model. MLS clubs I think originally felt Alianza was a bridge to the Mexican clubs, and we are, but we've proven that we're equally a bridge to MLS clubs or other academies. We’re agnostic and care only about giving the players as much opportunity as possible.
Last year we had MLS clubs who never participated before and we had the mainstays like FC Dallas, which has been working with us for a long time and is one of the best academy clubs.
But … many of the Mexican club scouts and all the FMF scouts pay their own way to fly to the Alianza events week in and week out and I can’t get U.S. Soccer to commit to even sending local scouts each week. Hugo Perez, John Hackworth [U.S. U-17 coach] and Bob Bradley [former U.S. national team coach] were the only ones who ever expressed appreciation or interest in what we were doing.
The Federation has told us not to promote their brand to the 250,000 Latinos who attend our events and Tony Lepore [U.S. Soccer Director of Talent Identification] actually notified us in 2016 that they weren't interested in participating in Alianza since they haven’t found any elite players. On more than one occasion, U.S. Soccer scouts and coaches have secretly watched games hiding behind bleachers or our event inflatables but, when I asked, were unwilling to address our Alianza players directly for fear of endorsing an “unsanctioned” event.
SA: Do you think that the Mexican coaches have a greater appreciation for U.S. Latino talent than U.S. coaches?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Yes. From talking to these [Mexican] coaches over the years, they see way more potential in these players than I think our coaches do. Jonathan Gonzalez is an example. While he was known by U.S. Soccer, his style and size may have hurt his chances with the narrow mindset of the current coaching staff. Mexico appreciates players like Jonathan and simply has a better system to give players like Jonathan opportunities.
The Mexican coaches see their talent, but they also see a certain level of discipline. Many of these kids who come here come are from families who have literally crossed borders, have overcome obstacles I've never seen before to give their family a better life.
And that ethos informs these kids who don't take anything for granted.
These kids are fighting for everything they get. The Mexican coaches see a certain level of fierceness. They also find that the Latino kids who are born and raised here are fitter and stronger than Mexico-raised players. And Mexican coaches say some of that has to do with their diet in the U.S.
SA: There’s also the style of play issue. Of U.S. Soccer’s nine national teams on the male side, there’s only one Hispanic head coach [Tab Ramos, U-20s]. And by my last count, only one of the 12 Technical Advisors, who are charged with scouting youth national team prospects, is Hispanic. That proportion doesn’t even match the overall demographic of the U.S. population. And U.S. Soccer imported three Dutchman for the key positions of U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education, Coaching Educator and U.S. Soccer Development Academy Director.
One could get the impression U.S. Soccer is not interested in a Latin style of play, despite its large Latino soccer-playing population and the international success of Latin-style soccer. Your thoughts?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: I think the Mexican coaches know what they’re looking for. They have a defined style of play. …
Technically, I couldn't analyze what a coach does or doesn't see. I leave that for soccer experts. I know, however, that the U.S. Soccer Federation is absolutely missing out on identifying talent because they aren’t expanding their definition of what good talent means. When any coach says we know all the talent out there and our performance at the top echelon of our national teams is erratic at best and just bad in some cases -- then either we should throw in the towel and accept status quo or truly expand what we are looking for.
I know culturally our Latino kids at Alianza feel no connection to U.S. Soccer or Major League Soccer, and that's borne out on surveys we've done.
It's a shame when you look at these surveys that the top league, the league they prefer to play for if they could, or watch on TV, is Liga MX, followed by La Liga -- Barcelona and Real Madrid -- followed closely by the English Premier League, and sometimes fourth or fifth, sometimes after the Bundesliga, is MLS, with a single-digit mindshare. This is from kids born and raised in the United States. And that’s simply because these kids have not been preached to or reached out to by the U.S. organizations.
Most of these kids would not recognize the U.S. Soccer logo.
SA: I do find it somewhat surprising that MLS comes in so low, it does have a good amount presence on Spanish-language TV.
BRAD ROTHENBERG: My instinct is the MLS's albatross is U.S. Soccer. I think if U.S. Soccer did more to ingratiate itself to this community, MLS would benefit.
I don't think the kids distinguish between MLS and U.S. Soccer. But I think MLS fortunes would rise in this community if the Federation was doing more to go into the these communities and find talent, and help these kids live their dreams, which U.S. Soccer should be doing for its own benefits anyway.
SA: Going way back to the 1990s, U.S. Soccer talked about bringing unaffiliated Latino leagues into the fold. Are you saying that has still not happened? How many of kids who show up to Alianza events play with unaffiliated leagues?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: At the very top, some may have been plucked into an affiliated club, but the vast majority of our kids are in unaffiliated leagues.
We had over 700 kids come to our L.A. tryout, and the overwhelming majority were unaffiliated. And 700 is a very small group for that area. There must be a couple million Latino boys under the age of 18 playing soccer within driving distance of that San Bernardino location.
If U.S. Soccer doesn’t care about the unaffiliated players, then it doesn't matter who the next U.S. Soccer president is, our destiny is fixed.
Alianza is a trusted brand in the Latino community. If U.S. Soccer came along with us, if the U.S. Soccer brand was coming with us into the community, our ability to find kids would be go up three-, to five-, to-10 fold. And even if we never found the next great player, the federation will be winning over families who, at present, think U.S. Soccer doesn’t care about them. We won't know until we try it.
SA: How much of a problem is pay-to-play?
BRAD ROTHENBERG: Pay-to-play doesn’t work in the Latino community we deal with, but it is not going away. Pay-to-play should not be an excuse for us not to do more with the Latino community.
Pay-to-play exists in other countries, too, it's just that the soccer governing bodies in those countries can afford to subsidize it -- and MLS does some of it already.
I think there's a lot more the Federation can do, once we have someone who wants to dedicate themselves to this community.
U.S. Soccer could bring training centers into the Latino communities tomorrow if they had the will, because they have the money.
Five years ago, Hugo Perez wanted to bring these training centers into more of the Latino communities, and he was able to do a few, but not nearly enough to meet the demand. He did not get enough support from U.S. Soccer.
[Editor’s Note: U.S. Hall of Famer Hugo Perez coached the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams that included Christian Pulisic, Jonathan Gonzalez, Weston McKennie, Haji Wright, Nick Taitague, Tyler Adams and Edwin Lara. He was let go as a youth national team coach in 2014 and shortly after as a U.S. Soccer Technical Advisor.]
SA: For sure, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, launched in 2007, has given more Latino players opportunities to play elite youth soccer than ever before ...
BRAD ROTHENBERG: It seems like the Development Academy clubs might be where to get the best coaching, but there aren't enough. We have seen incredibly talented boys from areas that aren’t close to an academy.
I don't know whether the Development Academy is the answer. Even if they scholarship players, their clubs are geographically out of reach for so many players.
U.S. Soccer needs to go to into these communities. Until U.S. Soccer shows these players the path, they won’t be able to take the steps.