By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 19, 2024) US Soccer Players – It’s not all that often that the number of USMNT players based in a given league abroad more than doubles in a single transfer window. Such is the case with Liga MX this winter. Cade Cowell and Brandon Vazquez made multi-million-dollar moves to join Chivas Guadalajara and CF Monterrey, respectively, and Joe Corona returned to Club Tijuana, where he began his professional career and won two league titles.
That trio joins Ventura Alvarado of Mazatlán FC and Club América’s Alex Zendejas in Mexico, adding a new facet to a long history of cross-border links. Just as Mexico’s national team and its topflight clubs venture north to connect with Stateside fans, USMNTers have been testing themselves and finding opportunity to the south for decades. That tradition includes some of the most iconic players in the program’s existence.
The interchange dates back to the days of the old NASL, if not further. In 1979 the San Diego Sockers inked an exchange agreement with Pumas UNAM in which select players were loaned back and forth, making use of their leagues’ different spots on the calendar. Future Real Madrid star Hugo Sanchez was one who took part, scoring prolifically for the Sockers while Jean Willrich performed well for Pumas.
Born in Germany, Willrich moved across the Atlantic to play for San Diego in 1978, gained permanent residence three years later, married an American, and attained full citizenship in time to represent the United States at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Another pioneer, Mike Getchell, broke new ground at Monterrey in the late ’80s. Dozens of US players would follow in their footsteps in the ensuing years, including all-time greats like Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, and Jozy Altidore.
Some of them made their names and took their careers to new heights in Mexico. Others stayed just a few months, including several members of the 1994 World Cup squad who competed in Mexico while awaiting the launch of MLS. Many were and are of Mexican-American descent, personifying the interwoven history and culture of the two nations both on and off the field. Recent data suggests somewhere around 37 million people in the United States have Mexican heritage.
Corona’s first stint at Tijuana spanned one notable chapter in that story. The San Diego native was one of several Americans recruited to cross the border to join the Xoloitzcuintles project, which was founded in 2007 with the specific goal of building a club that could draw fans from across California and northwest Mexico alike. The concept resonated, with nearly a third of Xolos’ season-ticket holders coming from the US at one point.
Promotion to the top division was gained in 2011 and Corona, Edgar Castillo, and Greg Garza helped Xolos win a storybook Apertura championship the following year. Subsequently, Paul Arriola, Herculez Gomez, and Michael Orozco joined up, as did younger prospects like Vazquez, who crossed the border daily from Chula Vista as a teenager to develop in Tijuana’s academy and made his first-team debut with Xolos before moving to Atlanta United in late 2016.
Many other Liga MX clubs have long scouted for young talent in the United States, too, and recently Mexico’s national teams have ramped up their recruitment efforts as well. A recent El Tri under-16 national team camp included nine players from US academies, a sign of growing respect for the northern nation’s developmental infrastructure.
Cowell’s arrival at Chivas represents a new frontier of sorts for the Guadalajara giant, which has a proud policy of fielding only Mexican players. The San Jose Earthquakes homegrown qualifies via his mother’s heritage, and recently obtained a Mexican passport. In years past that was also interpreted by club leadership to mean that Chivas players could only represent El Tri in international play, something Zendejas experienced when he joined the club from FC Dallas in 2016.
That evolved in recent years to give dual-eligible players the choice of which national teams they would represent. That makes Cowell the first USMNTer in Chivas’ history. Meanwhile Zendejas also achieved a first when he helped América win the 2023 Apertura title last month. The winger is now the first and only US player to win a Liga MX championship with both Chivas and Las Aguilas, fierce rivals widely viewed as boasting Mexico’s two biggest fan bases.
Alvarado has also tasted glory with América, winning two league trophies and two editions of the Concacaf Champions League in a 2012-16 stint with the Mexico City powerhouse. Born in Arizona, he was eligible to represent both nations and chose the US, earning 13 caps in the USMNT’s busy 2015 slate. The versatile defender also won titles at Santos Laguna and Necaxa and is now competing for a key role at Mazatlán, a young club founded in 2020 seeking to climb the Liga MX ranks.
The two countries’ soccer scenes have steadily grown more and more intertwined lately. Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s promotional arm, helps El Tri host friendlies around the US every year. MLS and Liga MX have also partnered, with the most tangible result the dramatically expanded Leagues Cup tournament added to the North American calendar in 2023. That event will bring all five Mexico-based USMNTers, along with several other US products competing in Liga MX, back home for as much as a month during the dog days of summer.
The biggest joint venture of all arrives in two years’ time, when the US and Mexico will co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside Canada. While the majority of the action will unfold on US soil, three Liga MX venues will feature, with Mexico City’s iconic Estadio Azteca set to become the first ground in history to take part in three World Cups.
The 1994, 2010 and 2014 USMNT World Cup rosters included Mexico-based players. The current Liga MX delegation will aim to make sure that’s the case in the next edition as well.
“In the case of Cade and Brandon, they chose to go to high-profile Liga MX clubs, and we know it’s highly competitive where they’re going. So it will be a different type of challenge for them,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of the league’s two newest US representatives during a January 19, 2024 media session. “We’re excited to see their journey and we’re supporting them from here.”
Photo by Jason Allen – ISIPhotos.com