Just three of Gregg Berhalter’s roster for Qatar have Latino roots. But many inside the game believe the coach should be given the benefit of the doubt
Spanish-speaking soccer fans of a certain age have grown up listening to broadcasters refer to the US men’s national team as “el equipo de todos” – everyone’s team, representing the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up America. But the 26-player US squad for this year’s World Cup, which kicks off on 20 November, has just three players representing the Latinos and Latinas who provide a considerable share of the game’s supporters in the US.
Forward Jesus Ferreira moved from Colombia to Texas when he was 10, midfielder Cristian Roldan’s parents are from El Salvador and Honduras, and Gio Reyna’s grandfather is Argentinian. Luca de la Torre, whose father is Spanish, provides another Hispanic presence, but he isn’t Latino. And one would have to stretch the definition of Latino to count Kellyn Acosta, whose paternal step-grandfather is Mexican. Ricardo Pepi, the Mexican American striker who settled a heated battle over his services by choosing the US over his family’s native country, was left out.
Manager Gregg Berhalter’s choices will face little scrutiny if his team get out of a group with England, Wales and Iran. But, for now, his selections have sparked a discussion about whether the roster reflects America’s 62 million-plus Latinos, most of whom identify as soccer fans and who drove a 52% growth in interest for the sport in recent years, according to a report commissioned by Telemundo.
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Some of North America’s best-known experts on soccer are inclined to give Berhalter the benefit of the doubt at this stage though.
After all, Berhalter is hardly to blame for the way soccer operates in the US. The expense associated with participating in US youth soccer often sets up white, affluent children to thrive. The best of those players also frequently have European backgrounds – and EU passports – that let them seek opportunities in Europe’s high-caliber leagues without requiring clubs to give them one of a limited number of spots for players coming from outside the continent.
In any case, it is not just coaches who decide who represents the US. Martin Vasquez, who played for the US and Mexico as well as acting as an assistant coach for the USMNT, says that dual nationals often choose to represent El Tri over the Stars and Stripes (he was able to play for both nations as his matches for Mexico were not Fifa sanctioned).
“It’s individual decisions, and not that the players aren’t given opportunities,” Vasquez tells the Guardian.
At least three players who had a chance at making the US squad for this year’s World Cup instead chose to represent Mexico: goalkeeper David Ochoa, midfielder Efrain Alvarez and defender Julian Araujo. As it happens, none of the three made the final Mexico squad announced on Monday
The recruiting battles over Pepi, Ochoa, Alvarez and Araujo are not only an extension of an intense on-field rivalry between the US and Mexico. They also symbolize the complex dynamics that go into which side not only to root for, but in some cases who to play for, when players have ties to both countries.
Now the coach of USL League One’s Central Valley Fuego FC, the Mexican-born Vasquez got to know Araujo, Ochoa and Alvarez and tried to recruit them for the US. He understands their plight well, having lived it and – during his time as a USMNT assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann – having worked with others who had experienced it as well, including Omar Gonzalez, Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres, all of whom had Mexican roots.
“They all had dreams of representing the US or Mexico and going to a World Cup,” Vasquez says. “What influenced me [to switch sides] was the better chance to be taken to a World Cup – on-field opportunity, in other words.”
And it’s what has happened on the pitch in the months leading up to the World Cup that has hurt the chances of some of the USMNT’s Latino players. Pepi is a prime example. After the teenager scored 13 goals for FC Dallas in 2021 (as well as three more for the US), he moved to Bundesliga side Augsburg in January 2022 for a reported fee of $20m – and didn’t net once in 16 appearances. He has enjoyed more success on loan to Dutch side Groningen – with seven goals in 10 appearances – but Berhalter has made clear that he is unimpressed with the Dutch league’s quality. Instead he chose Norwich City’s Josh Sargent, whose experience in the rough-and-tumble English Championship could be valuable with matches against England and Wales looming.
Some Latino “candidates just didn’t perform well,” says journalist Jon Arnold, who publishes the newsletter Getting Concacaf’ed. “I’m not sure there’s that many players that are … really in the mix.”
That’s a position echoed by Luis Omar Tapia, the chief commentator of the Spanish-language broadcaster TUDN. Tapia believes the 19-year-old Pepi’s switch from Major League Soccer to the Bundesliga was premature, and the accompanying reduction in playing time – as well as the loan spell – in effect ended his Qatari dreams.
“Pepi left when he shouldn’t have,” says Tapia. “And that’s affected everything.”
But perhaps Qatar isn’t the goal anyway. Arnold and Tapia point out that Pepi will be 23 and approaching his prime when the US co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside Canada and, appropriately enough, Mexico. Other USMNT players will be in their peak years by then, including Christian Pulisic, Reyna, Sergiño Dest and Weston McKinnie, making a deep run at the tournament realistic, something that could draw talented dual nationals away from Mexico and towards the US.
Arnold believes a player like Alejandro Zendejas of Mexico’s Club America, who’s set off a Pepi-like recruitment battle after representing El Tri at youth level, could factor in upcoming USMNT matches. And Tapia says he has information that FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vasquez prefers the USMNT over Mexico, despite having eligibility for both.
For now, Amelia Lopez of the Marketing Jersey sports consultancy and management agency says she doesn’t believe attracting Latino and Latina fans to the USMNT is simply a matter of selecting more Hispanic players. The backgrounds – soccer or otherwise – of the few Latinos rostered for this World Cup could not be more diverse, underlining the fact that America’s Hispanics aren’t a monolith. Why, for example, would a Honduran-American fan cheer specifically for an Argentinian-American like Reyna when their roots are in countries thousands of miles apart?
“Attempting to properly connect with one part of the community oftentimes means you’re disregarding another,” says Lopez, who supports Mexico over the US because of her father’s love for El Tri. “I think that is where US soccer will have to decide whether the lack of representation is a necessary consequence or a problem worth rectifying.”
Yet Tapia and Vasquez have no problem with how things are. Vasquez hopes both of his nations make deep runs in Qatar. As for Tapia, Chile, where he was born, didn’t qualify for Qatar, so he’s all in with the USMNT, saying it wouldn’t be a surprise for the team to make the quarter-finals.
Tapia says his “segundo equipo” – or second team – has long been the US. “My two daughters were born here, my four grandchildren were born here, I moved here when I was 14, and my whole career has been here,” he says. “I always want the US to win, … and I think this team can.”