With dual-citizenship players on the rise, the tension-fueled recruitment battle between the United States and Mexico strengthens.
In the past couple of years, international football has seen the likes of David Ochoa, Julian Araujo and Ricardo Pepi make headlines when committing to either side. Two of the three opted to represent El Tri, cementing Mexico’s long held edge with dual-citizenship figures.
While Gregg Berhalter attempts to understand each decision and encourage one made “with their hearts,” the USMNT head coach wants to change the course.
“The thing is, I always say, I want them to choose with their heart. I want them to feel good about it. And could you imagine growing up with parents and having a really strong cultural background and then being able to play for the country of that background? I think that's special,” he explained.
“Even though the United States has given them that opportunity, there's still this deep connection to their country, and some of them have to leave their country and want to go back, but they can't. And so for me, if a guy really chooses that, I'm happy. I'm happy for him because that's what he feels in his heart.”
Berhalter claimed the USMNT has previously taken a low-key approach to approaching these players, something he feels caused miscommunication. Araujo, for example, explained that while he felt well received by the head coach, there was a lack of “connection” with the members of the US camp, propelling him to El Tri.
Now, the head coach wants a stronger push for the Mexican-American players present.
“When I speak to guys like Ricardo and Jesus, and Jonathan Gomez, and have conversations with them, they feel a connection,” said the coach.
“It's not always easy, though. I think that, in general, I would like for our Latin players to be pushed more, in a positive way, that we're looking to develop them more and that we're putting more effort into developing the Latin community as well, because I think it's important.
“We talk to all these guys. We talk constantly to all these players. We're very engaged in this process, really engaged in the process. But I also realize that sometimes a player has it in his heart to do something else, and I'm fine with that.”
Despite the ongoing conversations with current undecided players, Berhalter knows Ricardo Pepi is his only current Mexican-American success story. After losing out on most, he’s encouraging upcoming figures to keep an open mind by bringing up Mexico’s success rate.
“I think that Mexico is really smart. They're going to talk to anyone that has a dual passport, and they're going to look to get them over,” said Berhalter. “And they're working the numbers, and the more players they can get, the more likely it is that one of them will contribute.
“The track record’s not great, right? And that's something the players should be aware of – the track record for guys going over to Mexico from the United States, and actually contributing, isn't there. And they're locking some of these guys in, and then that's it. And for us, I urge the players to keep it open, keep it open and see what happens, keep developing. But any player wants to feel wanted, right?
The head coach addressed Mexico’s track record while forgetting the USMNT had not capitalized on past recruits. The US men’s national team called up several figures during the 2014 Concacaf qualifying cycle, relying on Herculez Gomez, Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona before leaving them entirely out of their World Cup roster.
With Jonathan Gomez, Obed Vargas, Alex Mednez up for grabs, Berhalter and El Tri head coach Tata Martino are determined to make a compelling case for both sides.