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The Man Who’s Trying to Convince Some of America’s Best Soccer Players to Represent Mexico

The United States is home to 36.3 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, so plenty of young footballers have the ability to play for both countries internationally. Recently, U.S. Soccer has come under fire for the high-profile defections of promising talents like Jonathan González and Efrain Álvarez. Behind those decisions is an ex-semi-pro Dutch soccer player, employed by Mexico, living in Los Angeles.

Sacha Van der Most Van Spijk has a new haircut. Tight on the sides, swept back and gelled on top, the style is a bit more hipster than his usual look, and it’s giving his friends an opening to crack jokes at the 47-year-old Dutch soccer scout’s expense. Unfortunately for Van der Most, all of his friends seem to be here.

It’s a hot, dry September afternoon, and we’re sitting in folding camp chairs on the touchline of the StubHub Center’s auxiliary soccer fields in Carson, California, watching the youth teams of the L.A. Galaxy and Los Angeles FC face off in miniature versions of the region’s rivalry game, “El Trafico.” On the opposite side of the field, a small horde of parents and fans have established a makeshift bivouac complete with sun shades, chairs, and coolers to battle the unrelenting heat. Despite the rec soccer vibe, the under-13, -14, and -15 players on display today have real skill. Southern California is arguably the best soccer talent-producing region in the country. At any given moment, these are some of the best youth games being played anywhere in the United States.

Unlike the other scouts attending today’s games, Van der Most is not recruiting players for MLS clubs, college teams, or U.S. Soccer’s boys national teams. He’s scouting for U.S. Soccer’s biggest rival, Mexico. Over the last few years, the Mexican Football Federation has built a scouting network in the United States with Van der Most in California and another scout in Texas. Their task is simple: Find the best male youth players in the United States with Mexican ancestry and offer them a chance to play internationally for Mexico, the country of their heritage, instead of the United States, the country where they reside. “[The Mexican Football Federation] just sees this as an extension of their player pool,” Van der Most says.

The politics of recruiting players on foreign soil can be contentious. Over the past few years, Van der Most and his colleagues have landed several top prospects, including Jonathan González and Efrain Álvarez. Both players were born in California and had previously played for U.S. youth national teams but decided to switch allegiances after they stopped receiving call-ups from the red, white, and blue. Their decisions to represent archrival Mexico sparked outrage from fans already irate about the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

While it’s routine for national teams to recruit individual players from other countries (U.S. Soccer built much of its men’s senior team roster for a decade with the sons of American servicemen stationed in Germany), Mexico’s scouting program reflects the unique relationship that exists between the two countries. The United States is home to 36.3 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and that means that many young footballers have the ability to play for both countries internationally.

“It’s a very specific situation that there are so many Mexican people or people of Mexican descent living in the United States,” says Dennis te Kloese, a fellow Dutchman who serves as the director for Mexico’s men’s national teams and hired Van der Most to scout in Southern California. “I think it’s important that we keep an eye on all these players and that the Mexican players that compete currently in the United States know that there is an opportunity, which is not a given opportunity or a given thing, that they can compete for Mexican youth national teams or Mexican full national teams.”

Te Kloese says his federation maintains a positive relationship with U.S. Soccer, but it’s clear that some in the American soccer community believe Mexico is encroaching on its turf. In the wake of Mexico’s pursuit of the L.A. Galaxy’s 16-year-old star Álvarez, his club coach, Mike Muñoz, said, “Mexico was very aggressive to come after Efra, to come to his house, to invite him into a camp.” Van der Most has heard the complaints directly. At youth tournaments recently, Van der Most says that U.S. Soccer’s director of talent identification, Tony Lepore, has greeted him like he’s Darth Vader. “Tony is always joking when he sees me that I stepped over to the dark side,” he says. “And I’m like, [the Mexican federation] provide opportunities for these kids.”

Lepore and U.S. Soccer strongly deny that there’s any tension in the relationship, and the reality is that U.S. Soccer is also scouting globally too. The U.S. federation employs two scouts in Mexico and also tracks dual-nationals in England and Germany. At the moment, the U.S. is monitoring around 80 players in both Mexico and Germany. “This isn’t unique to Mexico,” says Lepore, who oversees roughly 120 scouts across the United States to monitor players and build relationships with the youth clubs that are on the front lines of player development and scouting. “We have guys on the ground everywhere. And we have just the right guy for any situation, and if we don’t, we can bring the guy in.”

Still, the perception exists—rightly or wrongly—that U.S. Soccer must do more to connect with the Mexican community. After González’s decision, U.S. Soccer faced withering criticism for neglecting a top prospect, especially after a report revealed that then-scout Thomas Rongen had falsely claimed to have visited González’s house three times in 2017. Rongen never went, but Mexico flew in te Kloese and arranged a phone call with then–Mexico national team manager Juan Carlos Osorio.

At the time, Mexico was able to offer González, then 18, something that U.S. Soccer could not—a chance to play in the 2018 World Cup—but the debate opened up a broader discussion about how the fundamental structures of the U.S. soccer pyramid continue to privilege those with the means to pay to play the sport. “Representation matters,” says Herculez Gomez, a former U.S. men’s national team striker and a Mexican American. “What gets to me is why these kids feel the need to go right outside of their birth country to find first-team opportunities. Why aren’t we giving these kids first-team opportunities right here in the States?”

Cruz Azul v Monterrey - Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX
Monterrey’s Jonathan Gonzalez struggles for the ball against Martin Cauteruccio of Cruz Azul in an October match.
Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

It’s in this charged climate that Mexico has created its U.S. scouting program, but at the StubHub Center, at least, the so-called aggressor has plenty of friends. As the Galaxy-LAFC matches get underway, a steady parade of coaches, scouts, and parents all come over to greet Van der Most, gossip about players, and uniformly comment on his new hairdo. Over the course of the day, Van der Most will jot down observations in a notebook bearing the Mexican Football Federation’s crest as he tells me a uniquely American story: how a semi-pro Dutch soccer player became a soccer scout for Mexico based in Los Angeles. In hindsight, I realize I should have brought orange slices.

Van der Most’s life changed forever in the Los Angeles International Airport. It was 2004, Christmastime, and he’d come to pick up his brother who was visiting from the Netherlands. Like a good Dutchman, Van der Most made himself conspicuous. He wore a bright orange Dutch national team kit.

But this wasn’t some off-the-rack replica jersey. Van der Most was sporting a kit that had been worn in a game by Pierre van Hooijdonk, a journeyman forward who featured 46 times for the Oranje in the 1990s and early 2000s. “It’s an original jersey with the dates on it,” he says. “It’s not a jersey that a lot of people wear.”

Also at LAX that day was Dennis te Kloese. The Dutch coach had recently arrived in Los Angeles to become the inaugural sporting director for Chivas USA, a newly launched MLS club backed by the fabled Mexican team Chivas de Guadalajara. The Los Angeles area houses one of the largest populations of Mexican people outside of Mexico, and league officials were banking on Chivas USA capturing the community’s hearts and dollars and being a natural rival to the well-established L.A. Galaxy.

When Van der Most’s young children went over to pet te Kloese’s dog, the two Dutchmen started talking and realized they had many things in common beyond a shared affinity for all things Oranje. Both had Latina wives—te Kloese’s from Mexico, Van der Most’s from Peru—both had recently moved to Los Angeles, and, most of all, both coached soccer for a living. A few weeks later, te Kloese called Van der Most and invited him to lead a clinic for one of Chivas USA’s nascent youth teams. He impressed, and te Kloese hired him.

The job with Chivas came at the end of a peripatetic period in Van der Most’s life. In the early ’90s, he was studying to be a physical education teacher by day, tending bar by night, and playing as an attacking midfielder for his local club in The Hague, Quick Den Haag, on the weekend. He knew he wasn’t good enough to make it professionally as a player and was sorting out what he wanted to do with his life when a tall, lanky striker from Northern California, Andrew Ziemer, joined the club. Ziemer had come to the Netherlands to play and earn a coaching license, and soon the duo were spending their weekends together driving to Amsterdam to watch Ajax and study their fabled youth development system. When Ziemer went back to California six months later, he invited Van der Most to join.

“America helped him out a lot,” says Ziemer, who is now the director of soccer at Santa Rosa United, a youth club in Northern California. “I think it was freeing to be here and not be judged in a negative way and more celebrated for the fact that he was not following a path he was unsure about but making a change to try to find something that was maybe unknown at the time.”

In classic California style, Van der Most lived out of a Volkswagen Vanagon. He and Ziemer nicknamed it “The House.” During the week, they would bomb up and down the coast, coaching youth soccer camps, and return to play for the Monterey Bay Jaguars on the weekend. “It was easy. We just put the seat up, threw in the goals and the soccer balls, and we were ready to hit the pitch,” Ziemer says.

For someone who’d grown up playing on Europe’s well-manicured fields, U.S. soccer in the pre-MLS days was a trip. The Jaguars played in the United States Independent Soccer League. To encourage more scoring, the goals were oversize. Every time Van der Most’s team committed a foul, the referee would award a blue card. If a team earned six blue cards, the opposing team would be awarded a penalty kick. “It was crazy,” he says. “We played in a college stadium. We had the loudest sound system I’ve ever heard in my life. And the sound system would go ‘roaaaar’ when we walked onto the field.”

One summer, he traded California for the Caribbean and went to play for a club in Belize, the San Pedro Dolphins. He lived in a hut on La Isla Bonita, the island immortalized in a Madonna song. The setting was beautiful, but the soccer was brutal thanks to the tropical heat, physical play, and surreal travel conditions. “We’d get to the mainland from the boat, and then there’s those old yellow buses, the American school buses, that would take our team through the jungle,” he says. “And we’d get to a little town, and literally there was [someone] waiting for us on the field, cursing us with a cigar, reading from the Bible.”

When these summer trips ended, he’d return to the Netherlands but was drawn back to California again and again. Between the Vanagon and Ziemer’s basement, he always had a place to crash, and he also had a girlfriend, Luz, in Los Angeles who would soon become his wife. He was broke but happy, and the people he met during these travels remain his closest friends today. “We were soccer nomads,” he says wistfully.

In 1999, Luz got pregnant with the first of their three children. That Christmas, her mother bought the couple wedding rings, and Van der Most got the hint. “That was the end of my adventure,” he jokes. The couple settled in Downey, a majority-Hispanic city in southeastern Los Angeles County. Van der Most enrolled at Cal State Long Beach to study kinesiology and was coaching part-time when he bumped into te Kloese at the airport and landed the job with Chivas USA. “There was basically nothing of the Chivas USA franchise, so everything had to be started,” te Kloese says.

So Van der Most did everything. He coached, scouted, and eventually oversaw the entire academy program, building it into one of the top academies in all of MLS. “He’s got a very good eye for players,” says te Kloese, specifically commending Van der Most for building strong ties with the region’s Mexican American community. “He relates very easily to young players and to their parents.”

One of those players was Efrain Álvarez. Long before he was deciding between representing the U.S. and Mexico internationally, an 11-year-old Álvarez was the youngest player in Chivas USA’s academy. He and Van der Most would play futjevolley (a Dutch variation on soccer tennis) after practice together. “I’d achieved my dream job,” Van der Most says. “Creating an environment where people get an opportunity to develop and having an opportunity to do that at a professional football club was amazing.”

Despite the club’s success developing players, Van der Most recalls that his teams made up mostly of Latino players weren’t always welcomed in the world of American youth soccer. “We had referees calling our players ‘fucking spics,’” he says. At one youth tournament, he says hotel officials reflexively blamed his team after guests complained about rowdy soccer players. When Van der Most investigated, it turned out the offenders were a group of white players from a Texas club. It wasn’t the only time his team would get blamed for something they didn’t do. “I’ve been called out twice. ‘Sacha, we need to talk to you. A bag was stolen. They say it’s your players,’” he remembers.

These encounters are familiar to many in the Mexican American community. “This is the makeup of our country and what our country is dealing with,” Gomez says. “To assume that it doesn’t trickle down in a sport is just ignorant.” I ask Van der Most if the increasingly racist rhetoric toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans from President Donald Trump has impacted his work. He says politics hasn’t explicitly come up in any conversations that he’s had with players and their families but that the atmosphere is unavoidable, citing a recent incident at a high school football game in Orange County where a majority-white team displayed posters that read, “We’re going to Trump you,” during a game against a majority-Latino team.

U.S. Soccer’s Lepore also says that politics has not been a factor in any of his conversations with dual-nationals, but he does report that U.S. Soccer has had to deal with one outgrowth of America’s broken immigration system: undocumented players. In the past, U.S. Soccer has identified players good enough to play on youth national teams and have had to inquire with the player’s club to determine if the prospect has a path to U.S. citizenship.

In 2014, Chivas USA went belly-up, having failed to build a durable brand and fan base in the region. Van der Most’s former Chivas players and coaches fanned out across the region, many landing with the L.A. Galaxy and, later, with LAFC. Out of work, Van der Most considered taking jobs at a few MLS clubs across the country but was reticent to uproot his family from Los Angeles. That’s when he got a call from his old friend, Dennis te Kloese.

Te Kloese, who left Chivas USA in 2008, had recently started a new job overseeing youth development for the Mexican Football Federation. He was thinking about establishing a scouting network in the United States, and he wanted Van der Most to do the scouting.

It’s hard to have a lengthy conversation with Van der Most at the StubHub Center. Several of his former coaches at Chivas USA now work with either the Galaxy or LAFC, and every few minutes some coach, scout, or parent pops over to say hello. First it’s Mauricio Cienfuegos, a Salvadoran midfielder who featured more than 200 times for the Galaxy and now coaches the club’s under-13 side. Later it’s Todd Saldaña, LAFC’s academy director. Van der Most shakes their hands, slaps their backs, leans in close to talk about specific players, and schedules follow-up meetings to discuss prospects that he’s interested in.

From the corner of the field—sitting in the much-needed shade of an equipment shed—it’s hard to see much of anything. Without any elevation, the sight lines are poor and it’s difficult for me (a mediocre midfielder who topped out playing high school soccer) to even tell what formation the teams are playing in. But Van der Most often points out the details I’m missing, like when LAFC swaps its wingers or when a player he’s been interested in on the Galaxy fails to see an open pass and instead takes a low-percentage shot from distance.

After today’s games, he’ll file a scouting report and send it off to te Kloese, Juan Carlos Ortega, Mexico’s youth technical director, and Salvador Gamero Téran, their head scout. “It’s an old-school process,” Van der Most says. If federation staff in Mexico are interested in moving forward with a player, Van der Most’s next step is to express interest with the player’s club to see whether he would be receptive to joining El Tri. “That’s something that the MLS clubs value very much,” he says. “The Mexican federation comes from a different approach than the U.S. federation. The Mexican federation approach is that it’s the club’s player. He’s your player, and we’re happy to work with him, where U.S. Soccer comes in and says, ‘It’s our player.’ That is foolish.”

Over the course of the day, two under-15 players stand out above all: LAFC’s hulking center back Antonio Leone and pacy winger Kevin Jimenez. On the left side of the pitch, Jimenez scores twice at the start of the second half to put the match out of reach for the Galaxy, while Leone locks down the defense in a 4-2 LAFC victory. Both players are eligible to represent the U.S. or Mexico. Earlier this year, Leone and Jimenez attended a U.S. under-15 national team camp.

Whether Mexico attempts to recruit the duo remains to be seen, but Van der Most admits both players impressed him today. He’d like to watch them play against older competition. If they dominate like they did today, it’ll be a sign that they’re potentially ready to make the jump to the international level. “They have got to be better than the [players in Mexico],” he says, speaking generally about scouting. “[The Mexican federation] cannot just bring one in to prove that having a scout in the U.S. pays off. It has to be quality that’s better than players over there.”

Though the approach Van der Most described is how recruitment works in the abstract, both of the recent high-profile switches—González’s and Álvarez’s—happened after each player and his family felt passed over by U.S. Soccer. González’s parents directly contacted the Mexican federation after their son, who had featured more than 20 times for U.S. youth national teams, was not called into the U.S. senior team for a friendly match in the wake of the U.S. failure to qualify for the World Cup. At the time, he was starting for one of the top teams in Mexico’s first division, Liga MX. For the family, it fit a pattern. Gonzalez had also been omitted from rosters for the U.S. under-17 and under-20 World Cups.

Te Kloese flew to Sonoma County to meet with Gonzalez’s family, and soon the midfielder was wearing El Tri’s trademark green kit. “I always saw myself as playing in the U.S.,” González said earlier this year when asked about switching, but said he made the decision because Mexico provided “more opportunities.”

The story of Álvarez’s switch is similar. A prodigious talent capable of scoring golazo after golazo, Álvarez had captained the under-15 U.S. youth national team when he was just 13 years old. But after an incident in 2016, Álvarez made the switch to represent to Mexico. So far, the budding star has been elliptical in describing what went wrong. “Something happened with the U.S., and then Mexico came knocking on my door, and I tried it and I liked it there,” Álvarez told NBC Sports earlier this year.

Efrain Álvarez
Efrain Álvarez trains in Atlanta in July 2018.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

What happened between U.S. Soccer and Álvarez was more personal than professional, according to Van der Most. “There was an instance where Efra was with the youth national team and one of the U.S. national team coaches just didn’t like him, not as a player, but said he was a bad kid,” he says. “He’s just a little kid and he’s just joking around, but they didn’t like him and he wasn’t called up for one camp.”

Alerted to the situation, the Mexican federation sent Juan Carlos Ortega, Mexico’s youth technical director, to Los Angeles. He went to Álvarez’s home and spoke with him and his parents about representing Mexico. Ultimately, says Van der Most, it was a family decision. “Efra, if you see his dad, he’s 100 percent Mexican. He wears Mexican national team jerseys all the time. I think his mom is more about him playing for the U.S.” Álvarez now features for Mexico’s under-17 national team.

In the interview with NBC, Álvarez said he’s happy with Mexico but is “not closing the door on anyone” with regard to his international future. The L.A. Galaxy declined to make Álvarez available for this story. U.S. Soccer also declined to comment on the circumstances of Álvarez’s switch.

“I’m sure it’s difficult for Efra because I’ve read a lot of his comments about how he’s keeping the door open for the U.S. men’s national team,” Gomez says. “I think it goes to show how conflicted these kids are when it comes to identity, and people don’t understand that.”

Despite Mexico’s successful recruitment of González and Álvarez, it’s not a one-way street. U.S. youth teams today are full of dual-national players, and several who have started with U.S. youth teams have gone to Mexico youth camps and then opted to return to the U.S. program. U.S. Soccer reports that Edwin Lara, a California native who left the U.S. under-17 residency program to play for Mexico, has recently filed a one-time switch to return to the U.S. national team. For Lepore, the key is early identification so players become accustomed to the U.S. program and culture. U.S. Soccer will occasionally accelerate that process with dual-nationals, but only if the player is ready.

“When you introduce them early, and then they leave—whether it’s Mexico or Germany—and then they say, ‘I really identify much more with the U.S. And that’s where I think the best fit for me is,’” Lepore says. “We don’t want them to feel funny or feel pressure about coming back and saying, ‘I want to return to play for the U.S. It’s what I identify with. It’s what I feel in my heart.’ But some of it’s the family, the brotherhood that they’ve felt with the teammates that they had early on.”

These decisions are intensely personal. Young Mexican American footballers are juggling questions of national identity and family values as they also consider which pathway will give them the best chance at a successful professional career before they’re old enough to vote. “There’s a saying, ‘Ni aquí ni allá.’ Neither here, nor there,” Gomez says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re an outsider in both countries because whatever you do, you’re going to disappoint somebody. It’s an incredibly difficult position to be in.”

As we pack up our chairs to leave the StubHub Center, Van der Most bumps into Efrain Álvarez’s father, Cresencio, and the two men embrace. Cresencio, sporting an Argentina national team T-shirt, was here to watch his younger son, Diego, play for the Galaxy under-15s. He and Van der Most talk about traveling to Mexico City in October to watch Álvarez compete in the Four Nations Tournament, an under-17 contest featuring Mexico, the United States, Chile, and Argentina.

Mexico would go on to win that tournament, going undefeated in all three of its matches. The U.S. team finished tied for last place, with two losses and one draw. In the head-to-head match between the rivals, Álvarez entered in the 57th minute, and Van der Most was there to cheer him on. In the 88th minute, Álvarez’s free kick from the right wing found the head of Mexico’s captain, Eugenio Pizzuto, for the team’s second goal in its 2-0 win. Against Chile, Álvarez again entered in the second half and scored a left-footed curler with one of his first touches.

It turns out that all those hours playing futjevolley paid off.

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