Brought on as a second-half impact substitute, LA Galaxy right-back Julian Araujo was influential in helping Mexico nab a crucial 1-0 win over Panama that kept El Tri's World Cup qualification hopes alive. The fullback was influential with his threatening runs on the right flank, and once Mexico eventually took the lead with a game-winning goal from Raul Jimenez in the 80th minute, Araujo did well to constantly sprint back and deny Panama a chance to get back in the game.
But unlike many of his El Tri teammates, Araujo wasn't formed at one of Liga MX's big clubs. Instead, he got his professional start in 2018 with LA Galaxy II in the USL Championship, the de facto second division in the American soccer pyramid. His Galaxy teammate Efrain Alvarez, who also debuted for Mexico last year, also got his start in the USL Championship. Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa, who committed to Mexico last August, made 26 appearances for Real Monarchs between 2018 and 2020.
Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise if the next Rafael Marquez, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, or Hirving "Chucky" Lozano doesn't come out of the famed Liga MX academies of Atlas, Chivas or Pachuca -- but instead out from USL clubs like San Antonio FC, El Paso Locomotive or Las Vegas Lights.
From a baseball field to 'El Tri' stardom
Araujo's unique path to Mexico City's Estadio Azteca began at Cheney Stadium, a baseball venue repurposed to host soccer games in Tacoma, Washington. In October 2018, he made his professional debut at age 17 for LA Galaxy II in a match with Seattle Sounders II (now Tacoma Defiance). Although it was a cameo role in a 2-2 draw, one could see glimpses of his talent. By March of 2019, he made his Major League Soccer debut with the senior Galaxy team, where he has since become an invaluable player and was named an MLS All-Star in 2021.
Araujo has credited his time in the USL Championship as a "great experience to be able to get professional minutes" in his teenage years.
"I do think that a lot of young players are continuing to receive opportunities in the USL," Araujo told ESPN. "I know that national teams will be aware of the USL and how players are performing."
As well as being former USL players, Araujo, Alvarez and Ochoa were all once part of the U.S. national team picture. Along with Ochoa (who has yet to make Mexico's squad), Araujo earned caps for the U.S. senior squad before switching to El Tri.
Araujo, who was called up again for Mexico's upcoming World Cup qualifiers (including against the USMNT on Thursday), expressed his excitement for what it meant to make his El Tri debut in that win against Panama.
"It was one of my biggest dreams. It was something that I've always dreamed of as a kid. I'm so excited, I get so excited when I talk about it. It was an incredible experience to wear the jersey that I watched on TV as a young kid," Araujo said.
"It was beautiful," he added about being able to train and play with some of those El Tri names that he grew up watching. "Still being so young, 20 years old, [and] to be with guys that have played all over the world."
If Mexico qualify for the World Cup -- and Araujo or Alvarez are selected for that final roster -- they wouldn't be the first U.S.-born (or Californian, for that matter) players for El Tri at soccer's biggest stage. Miguel Ponce (from Sacramento) and Isaac Brizuela (San Jose) were part of the national team setup for Brazil 2014, but those players were involved in Liga MX academies at young ages, marking Araujo and Alvarez's path as a new way to reach El Tri stardom.
"One hundred percent ... some of the best players that I grew up with playing soccer were Mexican American footballers. It's part of our culture," Araujo said when asked if a USL alum could become the next great in Mexican soccer. "No dream is too big."
USL talent getting traction in Europe
Before earning his role as USL Championship's first-ever sporting director last summer, Mark Cartwright was a former player who previously worked with English club Stoke City from 2012 to 2019. Cartwright, who aims to elevate player development and club structures that can make the USL a bigger player in the global transfer market, has also previously worked within the English FA's talent identification programs.
According to him, it's only a matter of time before other former USL players make their mark at the international level.
"I think it's inevitable, I really do. The talent is here, the dual nationality is here. It makes absolute sense that we will see players from the USL push on, certainly in the Mexican national team and the American national team," Cartwright told ESPN. "I think that's only going to get stronger."
Over the winter, Cartwright and the USL have seen three players move to European clubs, two of whom are eligible for the Mexican national team: 18-year-old Jonathan Gomez (to LaLiga's Real Sociedad from Louisville City) and 20-year-old Jose Gallegos (to the Danish Superliga's SønderjyskE from San Antonio FC). The USL actually had more Mexico-eligible players go to Europe in the winter transfer market than Liga MX, which had one single move (Orbelin Pineda from Cruz Azul to LaLiga's Celta Vigo).
"When you got players that are as talented as Gomez, as talented as Gallegos, more and more clubs are going to be visiting America to look at it," Cartwright said. "When I was in the Premier League with Stoke, any player that is 17, 18, 19, 20 years old and he's playing in a men's professional league, week in and week out, everybody is watching. The fact that we have all of these games on ESPN+, the world is a small place now."
Gomez last represented the USMNT in a friendly, but he remains on the radar for Mexico. After just a couple of months in Spain, the USL Championship's 2021 Young Player of the Year made it onto Real Sociedad's game-day roster in a 2-0 win over Mallorca earlier this month.
Gallegos, the two-time Young Player of the Year finalist and dual national, has yet to commit to either Mexico or the United States. But after earning his first pro deal with San Antonio FC in 2020, he is already factoring for his new club in the Danish Superliga.
"Jose is kind of the first to model those steps and that sequence," said Tim Holt, San Antonio FC's managing director. "[But] we certainly don't expect he'll be the last one."
In San Antonio FC's setup, there are 100 full-time players in their fully funded academy that breaks down the barrier of the pay-to-play system. In an area of the country with a large Mexican American population, the Latino representation of their program is "roughly at about 80%," very likely leading to more situations such as Gallegos'.
"We know where we fit in the overall global soccer ecosystem and it's so exciting for a young player to play for his hometown club, but all these players aspire to play in the biggest clubs in the world and they all have those dreams and ambitions," Holt said. "Our job is the pathway. We can be part of that pathway, but we aren't necessarily the end point of that pathway."
Mexico keeping tabs on more USL talent
At the 2021 Revelations Cup in November, a U20 international tournament hosted by Mexico, three players from El Tri's squad were Mexican Americans who were involved in last season's USL Championship season: LV Lights' Christian Torres and Antonio Leone and LA Galaxy II's Jonathan Perez.
Within a roster that featured many of Liga MX's most promising up-and-comers, the inclusion of a few U.S.-based players didn't come as much of a surprise for Robert Vidrio, a Los Angeles-based scout for the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).
"If you asked 10 years ago, I think Mexican American players were not on the radar, but nowadays? They are," Vidrio said.
Vidrio appears perfectly suited for his role. Calm, spectacled and with a constant smile, it would be easy to believe that he could be a high school teacher or college professor. Which, in a way, he is when considering that he's helping discover and usher in a new generation of youth for El Tri.
His job isn't to only scout Mexican American talent. He mentioned the example of Marcelo Flores, a Canadian-born Arsenal player with Mexican roots, who is also eligible for England. There aren't many Canadian-Mexican-English players roaming around, so more often than not, it's the massive player pool in the U.S. that Vidrio keeps tabs on.
"If you look at our younger [male] age groups right now ... there's always one or two Mexican American players," said Vidrio, who has previously worked as a scout for Liga MX and MLS clubs. "They were starters, they were not on the bench," he noted. "USL, it's been a big impact and a feeder for our Mexican national team."
Vidrio represents the next level of talent identification for Mexico that is adapting to a changing and advancing landscape in American soccer. The scout is a watchful eye that analyzes those within MLS, the USL, and even amateur Sunday leagues that are far from any kind of official league affiliation.
"A lot of these people don't believe me sometimes when I go out there [to the amateur Sunday leagues]," he added. "They'll just look at me and say 'What the hell are you doing out here? Why us?'"
Why them? For Vidrio, it's all about providing opportunities and discovering untapped sources that have yet to be found in the United States. And even in those Sunday leagues, he's already found a couple of teenagers that he plans to invite to Mexican national team camps this year.
"The beauty of the game is that we're doing something that's right for the community. We're trying to help these kids to reach their goals, to reach their dreams. I'm happy that Mexico wants to give opportunities. Now they believe in Mexican American kids and Mexicans in American culture," Vidrio said.
MLS, Liga MX clubs on notice?
Whether it be in MLS, the USL Championship, the upcoming MLS Next Pro, or a local pick-up league, there is an ocean of talent that can still be found. And for those who are looked over, these are the exact kind of players that the USL Championship can discover and utilize.
For the USL, that means partnering with groups like Alianza, the largest amateur grassroots soccer program in the United States for the Latino audience.
Although Alianza has a neutral stance on where players end up, they were once traditionally associated as a tournament where many Liga MX clubs went to scout and discover young Latino players that had been ignored in the American soccer world. Most U.S. clubs weren't as quick to get involved in the past, but that has now changed.
"You're seeing more MLS teams, more USL teams at Alianza events. Players have more opportunities in the United States so they're not going as much to Liga MX," stated Joaquin Escoto, a former director at Alianza who recently moved on to a new role as Vice President of Global Football at IMG.
Since 2016 when the USL and Alianza first started working together, more players are staying or returning to the United States instead of going to Mexican teams.
"It's getting tougher and tougher for Liga MX to recruit," Escoto said.
Liam O'Connell, USL's technical director, said that he's seen "greater and greater buy-in" from clubs who want to be involved in Alianza tournaments. Some USL teams have co-hosted Alianza competitions, of which have launched the professional careers for players like Newcastle United's Santiago Muñoz and Queretaro's Jonathan Gonzalez -- two Mexican American talents who've spent time in El Tri's setup. Gonzalez's younger brother Adrian recently signed with LA Galaxy II after switching from Pachuca's academy. He was also invited to an October U20 camp for Mexico.
The path of playing for Mexico via an American league might have been an oddity several years ago, but with the country's talent pool growing and the USL Championship wanting to have a more prominent role in the global game, it makes sense why El Tri's senior and youth setup are paying attention.
"Mexico, they don't care if you're playing in MLS or USL. As long as he's playing and he's a top player, I think they'll call," Escoto added. "We'll continue providing a pathway to players to either play in MLS, USL, Liga MX. If they do well, they'll be called up to national teams."