If a few weeks can change the direction of a player’s career, Alex Mendez’s life-altering moments came last summer when he scored his first professional goal for LA Galaxy II while also carrying the Galaxy’s U17/18 team to U.S. Soccer’s development academy championship final.
Heady stuff for a kid who was then just 17.
But without last summer, last week — when Mendez scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Mexico that qualified the U.S. for the U20 World Cup — might never have happened. And what was well known among the Galaxy’s youth coaches might have stayed a local secret for a little while longer.
“He’s world class,” said Curt Onalfo, the former Galaxy II coach who was an assistant with the U20 team. “He can play anywhere in the world. This kid is something special.”
He’s certainly been that since last June, when he started a prolific goal-scoring streak that won him not only the best-player award in the CONCACAF U20 tournament in Bradenton, Fla., but also a contract in Europe.
Less than three months past his 18th birthday, an age when most of his former South L.A. classmates are slogging through their final year of high school, Mendez is about to begin training in Germany, turning down a tardy contract offer from the Galaxy to sign with SC Freiburg of the Bundesliga after six professional starts in the U.S.
“He’s a special player,” Tab Ramos, coach of the U20 national team, told the U.S. Soccer website. “He has a great engine, he has great feet and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team.”
“Alex,” Ramos added “is a winner.”
Faith comes before victory, though, and Mendez thinks it might have been one free kick in an academy game last July that gave him the confidence he needed to take his talents to the next level.
With the Galaxy U17/18 locked in a scoreless tie with Vancouver in extra time of a playoff semifinal, Mendez paused for several seconds before taking a free kick about 20 yards from goal.
“That moment that you’re in, you’re so locked into the game. It’s just you and the ball,” he said.
When he finally took his shot, it was a wicked left-footed drive that struck a defender in the Whitecaps’ six-man wall and deflected into the net, sending the Galaxy on to the development academy final.
Ramos was at the game and went to Mendez’s house to meet with his mother, Alma Lagunas, and let her know how special her son was. That wasn’t always easy to see: Mendez’s boyish face, even for a teen, makes him look younger than he is and his scrawny frame — generously listed at 5-10 and 147 pounds — is far from intimidating.
But the goal against Vancouver was his fifth in as many games – sixth in six games if you count his first professional score in a USL match against Seattle. More than half came on set pieces, the types of shots Mendez, an attacking midfielder, practiced endlessly each night as he waited for a ride home from the Galaxy academy in Carson.
“Every time he’s lining up to shoot, you just expect the ball to go in,” Onalfo said. “He does it every time in practice.”
If Mendez’s success on a national stage is relatively recent, the hard work that got him there is not. Nor are the challenges he had to overcome on that climb.
He was introduced to soccer by his uncle Armando, who took him to a neighborhood park to play when Mendez was still a toddler, then signed him up for his first organized team when he was 5. Mendez later joined the Chivas USA academy where he was part of a stellar group that included U20 teammate Ulysses Llanez and Mexican U17 player Efrain Alvarez.
“It was clear he was very talented from the start,” said Sacha van Der Most van Spijk, a former director of youth development for Chivas USA.
When MLS folded Chivas USA after the 2014 season, the top academy players followed coach Brian Kleiban to the Galaxy, where Mendez said the competition for the coach’s eye made everybody better.
“It was just the environment we were in,” he said. “Nothing was given. You have to earn your spot. We would always push each other to be better.”
So when two teammates were invited to train with an age-group national team, Mendez vowed not to be left behind again.
“I really wasn’t thinking much of pro soccer,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Damn, it sounds pretty cool to play for the national team.’ If they’re getting this exposure playing on the same [academy] team that I’m playing on, I can get the same exposure if I’m playing.
“But I’m not playing. So no one can look at me.”
Everyone’s looking now thanks to Mendez’s performance in the CONCACAF U20 championship, where he scored eight times in as many games to win the Gold Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player. It’s the second straight regional title for Ramos and it qualifies the U.S. for next summer’s World Cup, where the Americans will be aiming for a third consecutive trip to the quarterfinals.
After that comes qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics, a U23 tournament, and, Mendez hopes, a call-up to the senior national team — whether it will be with Mexico or the U.S., Mendez says, is a question he’s putting off for now.
Clearly those opportunities will force more difficult decisions, such as the one he made last month to move to Germany after the Galaxy stalled with their contract offer.
“It’s tough,” Mendez, speaking by phone from the Tampa airport, said of leaving home at an age when he’s barely old enough to vote. “I’m doing it because I love the sport and I want what’s best. Germany was the right place to be.
“I’m grateful and happy for these moments.”