Boos and whistles rained down on Alejandro Guido and his USA team-mates at the Estadio Hidalgo in Pachuca on Saturday. The heated rivalry between Mexican fans and their neighbours to the north was exacerbated by the fact that the two nations would square off later that night in the Gold Cup final with regional bragging rights on the line once again.
“I understand why the fans boo and whistle us; it makes sense,” said USA’s roving midfield creator, stifling a laugh and shaking his head. “But it is a little bit strange for me.”
Guido, who wears the No10 with pride for the Stars and Stripes, grew up in the infamous border town of Tijuana, Mexico. He was born in the States and went to school there, in San Diego, California, but he called Mexico home. Everyday he would walk back and forth across the invisible line that separates the contentious neighbours and play football in both countries. “I have a little bit of both cultures in me,” he explains in his perfect English, remaining philosophical about the jeering, with an ice pack strapped to his thigh. “My mom’s from Oaxaca and my dad’s from Tijuana, and I am proud of my Mexican heritage. I can deal with the booing too.”
His father, who played with Cruz Azul’s youth team as a boy and is a die-hard supporter of the Mexican national team, wasn’t best pleased with Guido’s decision to pull on the colours of the United States when he was offered a chance at U-15 level. Even so, the talented playmaker’s family came around. If you listen closely enough, you can even hear them cheering proudly for their boy against waves of boos, whistles and clenched fists.
We like to attack; we like to play possession and keep the ball. This isn’t exactly what the USA’s soccer is known for.
Guido and co are a fresh departure from USA teams of the past, a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, with the vast majority of the side hailing from the Latino hotbeds of Southern California, Texas and Florida. “I think the Latin influence definitely makes a difference in the way we play,” said Guido, soft spoken and polite, with a permanent smile. “We like to attack; we like to play possession and keep the ball. This isn’t exactly what the USA’s soccer is known for,” he went on. “We like to play this way and the Latino flair is certainly a large part of it.”
In the past, the US national team structure has failed to locate talent in all corners of what is, in truth, a very large country. In previous youth and senior national team cycles, talented players from disadvantaged backgrounds, from peripheral ethnic communities or without the means to get themselves onto the radar, have fallen through the cracks.
Koroma's long road
It’s hardly the case with this current U-17 US side, who went through their Group D in second place here in Mexico with a multi-cultural array across their locker-room. Among them is one Alfred Koroma, a hulking figure in the US attack who’s scored twice so far at these finals. He came to the US as a refugee from his native Sierra Leone. “We have our own style, that’s for sure,” said the African-born super-sub in the side, which also boasts Esteban and Mario Rodriguez, both of Mexican extraction. “We need to keep it up.”
This new-look USA is a breath of fresh air all the way down to the technical area, coached as it is by former Colombia international defender Wilmer Cabrera. The ex-America de Cali man is fluent in Spanish and English and has his young team humming with style and spirit as they face mighty Germany in the round of 16 in Queretaro. “We like to keep the ball; it’s part of this team’s make-up and we have to continue to play our game as we look ahead,” said Cabrera, a teacher and mentor at heart, who has an unmistakable affection for his young American charges.
The Germans scored no fewer than 11 goals in their three group-stage wins and look like one of the most fearsome sides at the tournament. Even so, Cabrera and Guido fear no foe. “We just need to keep doing what we do,” said Guido, with the final word. “We need to focus, keep the ball and play with our own style.”