🇲🇽 Jonathan Gomez shares what it's like to 'spar' with the Mexico national team
What the Lou City left back learned from Chucky & Co.
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His coach wanted to grab a coffee during an off day, but Jonathan Gomez wasn’t sure why. Once he showed up and was sipping his drink, Danny Cruz told him the news.
“They want you to go train with the senior national team,” Gomez recalls his coach saying. “There's gonna be a group of young players. They want to see you.”
The Louisville City left back, a dual-national who was named on the United States preliminary Gold Cup roster released Friday, wasn’t getting called to the senior outfit but was part of Mexico manager Tata Martino’s plans for training ahead of the Concacaf Nations League Final Four, with Gomez and a dozen other players serving as a ‘sparring squad’ for El Tri.
Two weeks later, the 17-year-old was in Dallas, dressed in national team gear and warming up with some of Mexico’s biggest stars.
“It’s a surreal moment. Obviously, a lot of these guys you grow up watching and some of them are playing in Europe in big teams. Hector Herrera just came from winning La Liga, like, two weeks ago. And then you're here, and you're training with them,” Gomez told me last week before returning to Louisville. “You just want to learn and gain as much experience as you can, learn from those who have done it at the highest level.”
There certainly have been opportunities for the 13 younger players, 11 based in Liga MX plus Gomez and Diego Abreu, to hear from the best.
“Hirving Lozano has clearly explained to me in which moments I have to get into the box so I’m not poorly positioned when the cross comes in,” said Abreu, the son of former Uruguay legend Sebastian Abreu in an interview with the official FMF website. “Hector Moreno and Edson Alvarez help me a lot when they mark me. They explain what they look for, and so I try to make things as difficult as possible.”
Gomez said he’s formed a connection with Gerardo Arteaga, the 22-year-old currently playing at Genk after starting his career with Santos Laguna, sharing pointers about the left back position each of them play. Like Abreu, he’s also getting tips from players who work best on the opposite side of the field, talking to Lozano and Uriel Antuna about what frustrates the wingers.
In addition to the chats with some of the top players, the young players also learned lessons on the field. While the group trained separately at times, it also was brought in for sparring sessions. That meant analyzing the traits of Mexico’s upcoming opponents and trying to emulate those characteristics.
Gomez was thrilled to be involved and said he got lots of opportunities to test his skills.
“Some sessions, they use only some of us, and I've been lucky enough to be been used in basically all them,” he said. “The times we played 11 v. 11 it’s like, we play as Iceland, or we would play as Costa Rica, to basically simulate what they were going to do, whether it be build out, or how they press, or even practicing the set pieces, how Costa Rica were going to do them and whatnot.”
Another 13 U-20 players will be part of a sparring squad ahead of the Gold Cup, with Jorge Tello, Mexico’s coordinator of scouting, saying they’ve selected the best players in each position at the youth level for the two groups.
Back in Kentucky, Gomez helped Lou City to a win Wednesday as the FC Dallas academy product continues to establish himself as an everyday starter. He made the choice to jump to USL Championship last year, playing against other professionals and trying to push his ceiling as high as possible ahead of his 18th birthday in September, after which he’s likely to sign abroad with any of the number of clubs where he’s trained or had contact.
“That's the goal, ultimately, for me, to get over to Europe, and you see more players going over there,” he said. “Even with the U.S., you see now the younger generation - as well as in Mexico, with Diego Lainez - obviously Christian Pulisic, they're going over to Europe, and they're accomplishing big things. I think that's the next step, and that's the next level to achieve.”
It’s no accident Gomez has his eye on players from both North American powerhouses. While he prized the opportunity to train with Mexico’s top players and has played in youth tournaments before with El Tri, he also is on the Gold Cup preliminary roster and has been to U.S. camps in the past. At least when we spoke, Gomez wasn’t closing the door on suiting up for either team at the senior level.
“I think I'm just gonna continue to keep my options open,” he said. “I’m going to keep really focusing on my club and performing there and then what happens at the at the international stage happens and we'll go from there.
“For me, it's all about opportunity. Where am I going to play? Where is the better opportunity? So as of right now, I'm undecided and just focusing on getting better.”
Arteaga, Lozano and Antuna may one day rue giving him that advice, but for the moment, Gomez is using all the tools at his disposal to push toward that goal of improving, making the jump abroad and seeing where he lands on the international stage. No doubt his time with Mexico this month will serve him well no matter where the future takes him.