Ahead of the September international dates last year, Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez was hoping for a phone call from U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, following an impressive start to the 2017 Apertura with Los Rayados in Liga MX. As anyone who has followed the story even remotely will know, the call-up to Arena’s squad didn’t come, and there was nothing ahead of the October dates or the November ones, after the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Now, dual national Gonzalez takes his place as an integral part of an exciting young generation of El Tri players called into interim coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti’s squad to face Uruguay (Friday, Sept. 7 in Houston) and the United States (Tuesday, Sept. 11 in Nashville).
There are no regrets from the youngster regarding his choice.
“It wasn’t easy being young and having to choose between two countries, but I feel like I made the right decision,” Gonzalez said in a phone interview with ESPN FC. “And I can’t turn back now, so I have to just keep working and give it my all for this country.”
The Santa Rosa, California, native moved to Monterrey as a 14-year-old after shining at the Allstate Sueno Alianza scouting program and hasn’t spoken to anyone from U.S. Soccer since: In his words, “everyone went their separate ways.” The game in Nashville next Tuesday will be his first experience facing off against his country of birth.
“It’s going to be something different for me, but I just have to give it my all for Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “What else can I say?”
Gonzalez has experienced the fixture the other way around at the Under-20 level but was left on the bench as the United States defeated Mexico 1-0 in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in February 2017. Gonzalez played 22 minutes against St. Kitts and Nevis over the six games in that tournament, with New York Red Bulls central midfielder Tyler Adams starting three of those games. Adams and Tyler could go head-to-head in midfield on Sept. 11 in what promises to be a fascinating duel, but Gonzalez’s mind has long moved on from missing out on the 2017 Under-20 World Cup with the United States as well as the 2015 U-17 World Cup before that.
While the U.S. soccer community might still be processing just how and why Mexico was allowed to bring over a player who had his eyes set on becoming a full U.S. international, the California-born midfielder has become part of a group of players — including Diego Lainez, Roberto Alvarado and Edson Alvarez — that represents the future for Mexico.
Gonzalez might not have been named in Mexico’s World Cup this past summer, despite erroneous suggestions that his switch had anything to do with a promise that he’d be at Russia 2018, but he showed at the Toulon Tournament, as part of the next generation, just why he won’t be overlooked by Mexico anytime soon.
The pressure, the spotlight, the fame and no shortage of adulation from Monterrey and Mexico fans have come Gonzalez’s way since the decision, along with some harsh criticism for turning his back on the United States in what is also a complicated political climate. But the reserved Gonzalez seems to have taken a year as tumultuous and emotional as any teenage player could realistically experience with minimal fuss.
It’s worth rewinding.
Gonzalez only made his Liga MX debut for Monterrey on July 21, 2017. Less than five months later, he was playing as an outlier (the youngest player by far) in a historic Liga MX final against city rivals Tigres before he changed national teams, made his debut for Mexico on Feb. 1 and tried, in vain, to win a World Cup spot with El Tri. In the midst of all that, Gonzalez won Liga MX rookie of the year.
This Apertura, maintaining his place in the starting XI — even when Monterrey switched coaches from Antonio Mohamed to Diego Alonso — has arguably been right up there as one of his greatest achievements. Starting in one of the continent’s most expensively assembled squads with Alonso’s more possession-based style hasn’t fazed Gonzalez from adapting, despite his age.
“Alonso likes playing out of the back a little more,” Gonzalez said. “He doesn’t like playing direct that much, but I think it helps us central midfielders to get a few more touches on the ball and help the team build up.”
When asked to reflect what the meteoric rise has been like, Gonzalez struggles for words.
“It’s been like a whole other thing,” Gonzalez said. “Being called up to the full national team and then everything with Monterrey has been something amazing for me.”
It’s difficult to get many words out of Gonzalez, who has maintained a low profile in the media the past year. But do a little digging, and you’ll find a youngster who maybe isn’t the most comfortable in the limelight. He seems to have assimilated to his newfound fame and attention by retracting into himself and, especially, his game.
A look over his social networks reveals a lot: a heavy dose of inspirational quotes, religion and messages that are perhaps aimed more at himself than anyone else.
“God, if at anytime I lose hope, help me to remember that your plans are better than mine,” is his pinned tweet. “Tears will get you sympathy, but sweat will earn you results,” reads another. It’s a long way from the look-at-me culture displayed by many of his peers.
“My family has a lot to do with that,” Gonzalez said. “They always try to remind me where I come from and to know that I have to be the same person. Nothing has changed. You have to be humble. That’s one of the biggest things in my opinion that characterizes a person.”
That has also played out in Gonzalez’s style of play. There’s no petulance or talking back to the officials, but there is an aggressive (in a good way) and incessant motor looking to break up the opposition’s play and distribute correctly when on the ball.
Gonzalez has also bulked up in size to be more resistant to bruising opposition.
“I think that’s a big part of the game. You have to improve in every aspect, so I think that it is going to help me in the future,” he said.
At 19, Gonzalez has come through more than many players will in their whole careers. When he walks onto the field in the green shirt in coming days, the cheers from Mexico fans will carry that little bit extra volume, with the knowledge that Gonzalez represents not only El Tri‘s future but also what their great rival the Stars and Stripes missed out on.