One of Berhalter’s accomplishments as the USMNT manager is recruitment. The coach has taken criticism for tactics, team selection, and recently locker room control. A constant has been his ability to recruit players. Sergino Dest(FC Barcelona), Yunus Musah(Valencia), and Ricardo Pepi(FC Dallas) have all committed to the USMNT under his tenure. Recently the USSF has seen two provisionally cap-tied individuals Julian Araujo and David Ochoa, file a one-time switch to our rivals Mexico. Why are talented Dual-Nats leaving, how can the USSF mitigate this problem, and how does the USMNT move forward now that two top prospects are gone?
It was a warm spring day in Guadalajara. The USMNT needed one more win in the U23 Olympic Qualifiers to go to Tokyo. Two of the players on the field were David Ochoa and Julian Araujo, a Goalkeeper and Right back. Araujo and Ochoa were under the age of 21. They were high-value prospects in the USMNT pool; both of them were also available to play for Mexico. Araujo and Ochoa were committed to the National team and were ready to fight for the badge. The tournament had not been easy; Jason Kreis took a very defensive squad that lacked creativity. Although Kreis’s team selection lacked attacking options and put pressure on the defense, the USMNT expected to qualify. The USMNT lost that day 2-1 to Honduras and missed the Olympics.
A little over two weeks after the USMNT failed to qualify, the MLS season began. Julian Araujo was a starter for the LA Galaxy. David Ochoa started for Real Salt Lake. Araujo, whose form had dipped during Olympic qualifying, made an impact upon his return to the Galaxy. A player who looked lost just weeks prior seemed to be one of the best fullbacks in the league. Many USMNT fans began to regain their excitement. This excitement continued with David Ochoa’s debut season; he performed well and showed grit and determination. Two top prospects had shaken off the pain of missing Tokyo and begun to perform consistently at a club level.
In June, the Concacaf Nations League took place. The USMNT won the tournament with a 3-2 win over Mexico in a nail-biting final. Araujo was absent from the roster, but Ochoa was present as the third-choice goalkeeper. During the final, Zack Steffen, the starting keeper for the US, was injured. Berhalter called on Horvath, a backup goalkeeper for Club Brugge, and Horvath made many vital plays and saved the game-tying penalty. Ochoa did not play a single minute of the Nations leagues. In the following weeks, Ochoa filed a one-time switch.
Julian Araujo continued to perform for the LA Galaxy. The Gold Cup began in July, and Araujo was selected but denied a call-up to the squad. In his place, the USMNT took an injured Reggie Cannon and Laliga Segunda player Shaq Moore. Shaq Moore had an excellent tournament that included the fastest ever scored goal in USMNT history. The US called Araujo into WCQ, which he also denied stating that he was waiting to make his final decision. For the past three months, Araujo’s situation was reported by multiple sources. Last week, Araujo filed his one-time switch to Mexico.
Many fans and reporters have speculated the reasons both players filed the switch. Some have argued it was due to the influence of parents and agents. Others have argued the atmosphere that Berhalter has created within the team is not conducive to Latino inclusivity. Rumors surrounding the individual players’ self-belief and morale have also been widespread. Many have stated that Araujo did not feel he would be a long-term player in the USMNT and that Ochoa thought it would be harder to break through. While there may be some truth to these statements, it is not beneficial to speculate on them as we do not know their validity.
The majority of dual nationals that have left and are rumored to be leaving the USMNT are Mexican-Americans. Players like Araujo, Ochoa, Ledezma, Leone are extreme talents. Players committed to the national team have either left or are supposedly re-evaluating their current affiliation. The USSF has done a lackluster job of advertising to these individuals the faith and goodwill they hold towards them. The USSF has continually relied on others and seemingly refuses to provide leadership and staffing to represent the Latino community. Pair this with murmurings that the Latino players are not allowed to speak Spanish in training and the lack of locker room control presented by Berhalter’s staff, it is no wonder why we lost these valuable players.
The question we have now: in what ways can we mitigate the loss of talent? First, we must ask: does this problem lay with the coach or the federation? While Berhalter did play some role in this loss, I believe the USSF is at fault. As I mentioned earlier, the USSF has not provided Latino dual-nats the amenities that others have received. Culture plays a massive role in recruitment, and the team is not culturally inclusive towards Latino players. Lack of representation on the national team and staff negatively affects the relationship between players and the federation. Landing players like Pepi will help with this issue, but it goes deeper. USSF’s refusal to hire coaches like Oscar Pareja and Marcelo Bielsa uphold opinions that they are unwilling to cater to a large portion of the player pool.
The federation must prove to dual-nats that it will provide an accepting culture and a system that gives all players equal opportunities to succeed. It is imperative to retain Ledezma; it is crucial to land Antonio Leone. While the loss of Araujo and Ochoa is a massive blow, we must expect players like Scally and Slonina to step into their positions.
The fan base must understand that the loss of dual-nats is inevitable and will increase. We must recognize the inability to retain every player due to a better talent pool. Although those statements hold true it is the responsibility of the federation to provide support for these players regardless. We cannot lose talented players due to a lack of inclusive culture and teams.