PHILADELPHIA — Jesse Gonzalez started in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup for Mexico, his parents’ homeland. Then last month, the 22-year-old FC Dallas goalkeeper switched his affiliation to join the United States, his home country.
Gonzalez just felt more comfortable in the red, white and blue.
“The U.S. has given me a lot. I’m grateful for what they have given me and the opportunity they have given me,” he said after joining the U.S. roster for the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Tim Howard, now 38, remains the top U.S. goalkeeper as the Americans try to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Brad Guzan, who will be 33 in September, is entrenched as the No. 2.
After that, no keepers have emerged at the top level in the next generation. Gonzalez, and fellow 20-somethings Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, Cody Cropper and Ethan Horvath all figure to compete with Guzan for the starting job in the 2019-22 World Cup cycle.
“I don’t have any doubt that he will be one of the best keepers in America,” Dallas coach Oscar Pareja said of Gonzalez after discovering the teen prospect when he was playing in a youth tournament.
Gonzalez’s parents emigrated from Mexico, and he was born in Edenton, North Carolina.
“My parents didn’t really find anything around North Carolina,” Gonzalez said. “They thought it was a lonely state, so they got out of there.”
His family moved to Houston and then on to Dallas when Gonzalez was a child. After spotting Gonzalez on a recreational team, Pareja persuaded the family to switch the keeper to the FC Dallas youth academy. He played there alongside midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who has broken into the U.S. starting lineup this year.
“They taught me how to be more responsible,” Gonzalez said. “It was almost like a job at the time, just waking up early and being on time to training.”
Pareja, a Colombian national team midfielder in the early 1990s, said the 6-foot-4 Gonzalez’s long arms and quick reflexes immediately reminded him of late Colombian keeper Miguel Calero. Gonzalez debuted for Dallas’ under-16 team in September 2010 and was signed to a professional homegrown player contract in March 2013. Just more than two years later, he became the youngest keeper to start in team history: at 20 years, 89 days.
By then, Mexican team scouts had noticed Gonzalez at a showcase in Sarasota, Florida, and asked whether he had interest in playing for El Tri.
“Richard Sanchez, one of my old teammates, he was there. He talked very well about them,” Gonzalez recalled.
Gonzalez started Mexico’s first four matches at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, then had a pair of saves during penalty kicks to lift Mexico over Panama in the final. At the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, he played in Mexico’s second and third games,
The following January, Gonzalez turned down an invitation from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to attend a national team training camp in Carson, California. Instead, Gonzalez went to a Mexican Under-23 team camp ahead of the Olympics, but he was not picked for El Tri’s Rio de Janeiro roster.
Gonzalez spent a long time before deciding this spring to apply to FIFA for a change of affiliation. Because he had not played a competitive match for Mexico’s senior national team, he was allowed a one-time switch.
“Whatever you decide, you’re going to be right, because that’s going to be your heart,” Pareja recalled telling him.
“Any time a soccer player is making a choice, whether it’s club or country, it’s important that they analyze the options carefully, they seek input from people they trust, and that they come to a decision that they’re happy with,” said Gonzalez’s agent, Richard Motzkin. “That’s the process Jesse took in making his decision and, rest assured, it wasn’t done lightly or without a lot of forethought. Ultimately, Jesse was fortunate in that he had two very good choices.”
After the switch was announced, Gonzalez received text messages from surprised friends.
“They were funny,” he said without going into detail.
Howard is the U.S. starter as the Americans head into Wednesday’s Gold Cup championship against Jamaica, and Hamid is the backup while Guzan settles in with Atlanta. For now, Gonzalez’s role is limited to training and pushing others on the practice field.
“We just want to see what he’s about,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.
Gonzalez is with the national team to learn. A full international debut might take a while.
“He’s not much of talker, which is good. I think young guys talk too much nowadays,” Howard said. “You’re naive in a good way and you think you know it all, and really it’s the opposite. You have it all to learn. At this age they’re using their athletic ability and their raw talent to keep their head above water, and through that process you learn. It is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation. It’s got to be everything to you. You’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices to get there.”
Gonzalez is willing to wait. He just hopes his absence from Dallas doesn’t cost him playing time in Major League Soccer.
“My backup could come in and have great games. He could stay there,” he said. “It’s difficult for me. I want to be over there, but I want to be here because this is an amazing opportunity for me.”