Thursday, July 31, 2014
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A few minutes with new Philadelphia Union midfielder Alex Mendoza

It's rare enough for American players to cross the Rio Grande and play in Mexico. It's even rarer for such a player to have been virtually unheard of in the American soccer community before making the journey.

A few minutes with new Philadelphia Union midfielder Alex Mendoza

New Union midfielder Alex Mendoza. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union)
New Union midfielder Alex Mendoza. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union)

The Union have headed to Orlando for the next few weeks of their preseason training camp. So I figure now is a good time to empty the audio recorder and post a few stories.

At least from where I sit, one of the most fascinating stories to tell is that of Alex Mendoza.

It's rare enough for American players to cross the Rio Grande and play in Mexico. It's even rarer for such a player to have been virtually unheard of in the American soccer community before making the journey.

But that was Mendoza, when he was growing up in Harrisburg. He played for the Harrisburg City Islanders' youth academy and attended Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pa.

Then, in 2009, a scout for fabled Mexican club Pumas UNAM got wind of Mendoza's talents. At just 18, he was off to Mexico City for what turned out to be almost four years.

It wasn't just serendipity that when Mendoza decided to return to the States, he landed with the MLS team just a few hours from his home town. John Hackworth's extensive knowledge of American youth soccer and his deep scouting connections meant that his staff did plenty of homework.

But it's still pretty cool to think that a kid can go from Harrisburg to Mexico, fly under the radar for a few years and then come back home to take his pro career even further.

On the field, will be interesting to see how Mendoza fits into the Union's depth chart at central midfield, which is the team's strongest position. Off the field, having a local product with Mendoza's global pedigree can only help the Union's importance in the region's soccer community.

Mendoza chatted with reporters for a few minutes after a training session last week. Here's the transcript.

What do you feel you can bring to the Union?

Every day I'm here I give it my all, 100 percent. In any sports team it's huge to bring that every day. And also having played in another league outside of this country, I think I can bring something more.

Talk about your time in Mexico and what you learned from it.

It was great. I loved the experience. I played against a lot of big players and learned lots of things from them. Down there, the things I've seen, the comparisons - I came back here and I've seen how much soccer has grown in the United States, and how they're doing things differently. It's just exploding from my point of view.

With Mexico, that's something I had always loved since I was little - just seeing how people were towards soccer, the fans and how people treat the sport. Down there, there's no other sport than soccer.

Does the Union train differently from how you trained with Pumas, or is practice pretty universal?

From what I've seen, yes, but I've only been here a few weeks. Everyone has their own style of working, and I think the way they incorporate technology in exercises - jumping in hot and cold water for recovery, that's something new to me. There's a huge difference and I think that's what benefits teams up here.

Why did you decide to go to Mexico in the first place, and why Pumas specifically? And what made you want to come back to the U.S.?

My dad is from Mexico, so I would always be down there on vacation. Since I was little, it was incredible what I saw down there, and I was always interested in trying to play there. It was Pumas because that was the option that was presented to me. One of the coaches of the reserve teams at the time offered me a tryout.

That's a big club to go straight into, though.

Yeah, it's big, and it was a lot to adjust to. The biggest thing was probably the language, because I didn't know Spanish when I left [Harrisburg]. It was a great experience and I loved my time there. I think it was time to get back here to the States.

Did you want to come to the Union specifically?

I didn't really have a team in mind where I said that's where I want to be. But it worked out great because I'm kind of from the area.

Your family must be pretty happy as they'll only have a short trip to come see you.

Yeah, it's a lot closer than Mexico.

You were talking earlier about training methods in the United States compared to Mexico. American soccer has a reputation - and it has changed somewhat in recent years, but it's still out there a lot - of being primarily about strength, speed and athleticism, instead of skill. The Union's practice sessions involve a lot of time with the ball. How much does that matter?

A lot. That's the most important part of the training. The conditioning and physical things play a big role, but if you can't deal with the ball, there's not much else you can do game-wise. You're going to struggle in games if you don't have it with the ball.

What has John Hackworth told you so far about how you've done and where he wants you to play?

We've talked a little about my positions. I'm a central midfielder and he was saying that he would like to see me play central midfielder and try to be in a bit more of an attacking role. When I was in Mexico I was a bit more defensive.

What do you think of your teammates so far?

I think they're great, and I would say that's another difference between Mexico and up here - the guys are a lot more receiving towards new players. They get to know you and spark up conversations. Maybe down there it was the language barrier that made it difficult, but it's something I've noticed. There are really great guys here and I'm enjoying my time so far.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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