MEXICO CITY — Efrain Alvarez is the most recent gem over whom the Mexico and U.S. national teams find themselves scrambling.
Alvarez is currently on El Tri‘s U-17 squad that is preparing for next week’s Cuatro Naciones tournament, as well as for next year’s World Cup in the category. He has also played for the United States’ U-15 team. He has experiences with both youth squads, but that he currently belongs to Mexico’s doesn’t mean that’s where he’ll stay.
The young LA Galaxy prospect arrived to Mexico’s camp last Sunday as part of the same team he’s represented since 2017, after the player born in Los Angeles to Mexican parents went through experiences that he considered unfavorable while with the U.S.
His decision, much like Jonathan Gonzalez’s a few months ago, wasn’t easy, but he’s not closing any doors.
“It’s not that I’ve made a decision, or that my stint with Mexico is 100 percent secured, but right now, God willing, I will stay with Mexico,” Alvarez told ESPN at Mexico’s training facility.
In July, Alvarez said that he “isn’t closing the door on anybody.” It’s a complicated decision, one between the country that raised him and the one that is in his blood. For now, his reality lies with Mexico, where he has enjoyed his training.
“I can still play for the U.S. or continue playing with Mexico, but for now I’m with Mexico, that’s where I’m practicing,” he said in July.
The midfielder, 16, is the youngest player to sign with the Galaxy. Given his age he is relegated to the second team, although he practices with Giovani dos Santos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
A constant presence on social media, Alvarez likes to post images of himself with the dos Santos brothers, whose support and counsel on and off the pitch he appreciates.
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) May 30, 2018
“They’re good people, I get along great with them,” he said. “They just tell me to never stop working hard, to always put in a little extra. Sometimes we stay after practice and work on our passing, sometimes on crosses. We always work hard.”
When he played for the Stars and Stripes in 2015, his top moment came on a four-goal performance against Uruguay, and all seemed well. However, he had issues with that squad, which prompted Juan Carlos Ortega, coordinator of Mexico’s youth teams, to knock on his door.
“Something happened during my last training session with the U.S.,” Alvarez said. “My parents got mad and everything, and when I came to Mexico they told me that if I wanted to go there, they would support me going forward. So I took the decision to come here to see if I liked it, and when I got back I told them that I wanted to stay.”
Once they lost Alvarez, officials from U.S. Soccer tried to convince him to return, but those efforts have fallen through.
“They’ve sought me out during tournaments and such. But like I’ve said, I’m with Mexico now and that’s’ where I’m training,” he said.
One of the biggest difference for Alvarez in Mexico has been playing with a group of players on Mexican clubs, the way in which they prepare and even the style of play.
“The way they play, from the way the manager helps the player and how the federation surrounds the team, we’re all together, even the cooks,” Alvarez said. “We’re all together like family, and I like that.”
Alvarez said he’s a big fan of Andres Iniesta, whose’ game he would like to emulate. The teenager is a creative player who brings a lot to the offense with goals and assists. His expectations for the moment are to stand out with the U-17 team. If something boosts his confidence, it’s been his performances so far in the category.
“It gives you confidence,” he said. “Mexico has already made a name for itself in U-17, but you have to work hard because we’re not going to win just by wearing this jersey, and every day we have to work harder. I think we have the opportunity to win the championship.”
Iván Cañada is a reporter for ESPN Mexico. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ivanjo88.