U-20 Men’s National Team midfielder Alex Mendez is hoping for one more chance to lift a premier youth trophy to cap off his amateur days.
The 18-year-old is a key player on a strong USA team looking to defend its regional title this month at the 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship in Florida.
And while qualifying for the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup is the main objective at the tournament being held on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Mendez does not hesitate to state his ambition.
“The goal is obviously to win it,” he said from the team’s camp in Florida. “I think we have a good chance with the team we have and, the potential I see in the players. That’s what we have to aim for, to win it.”
Mendez celebrates scoring against Puerto Rico in the USA's opening game of the 2018 Concacaf u-20 Championship.
To better understand his mindset, keep in mind that Alex has been a runner-up in three straight Development Academy Championship finals, including a heartbreaker on penalty kicks just four months ago. In January he’ll officially join his new professional club, SC Freiburg of the German Bundesliga.
“Alex, first of all is a special person, and secondly, he’s a special player,” said U-20 MNT head coach Tab Ramos of his attacking mid. “He has a great engine, he has great feet, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team. And Alex is a winner – he’s a player that’s going to lead the way in this tournament and one that we’re counting on to do big things.”
The second of five siblings, which include three brothers and a sister, Mendez is proud of his background, and how it’s shaped him into the young man he is and the player he’s becoming.
“I’m from South Central LA,” he says. “My parents are from Mexico.”
His biggest early influence was his uncle, Armando, who would take Alex to their neighborhood park to kick the ball around as a toddler and helped Alex sign up for his first recreational team at five years old.
“I was the only one on my team that was left footed at the time, and my uncle would tell me there’s something special about left-footed players,” Alex said of his early enjoyment of the game. “I couldn't tell at the time, but as the years went by for some reason I felt like I saw things that some players didn’t.”
He would watch games on TV with his uncle all the time. As a family they’d go to the ‘clasicos’ between former MLS side Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy. But if there was a game they’d always save up for, it was anytime his favorite Liga MX side, Club America, would play in the area.
“You think to yourself, ‘I want to be there one day,’” he says. “And as you’re growing up, you start to realize that there is a chance. It doesn’t matter where you grow up as long as you’re committed to it.”
It was shortly after he joined the Chivas USA Academy that he caught the eyes of U.S. Soccer scouts, who invited Alex to the inaugural Futures Camp in May 2015.
His club folded not long after, but his coach Brian Kleiban moved to the neighboring LA Galaxy’s Academy and brought Alex and number of his teammates with him to the club’s U-15/16 Development Academy squad.
Alex Mendez captained the U17/18 LA Galaxy in the 2018 Development Academy Championships Final.
Alex struggled breaking through the lineup that first year. But with training ending around 4 p.m., Alex and two best friends on the team would play on their own for two hours every day until one of their parents could pick them up around 6 p.m.
“There were times where I was, like, ‘I’m working hard and nothing’s paying off,’” he said. “You obviously had doubts in your head, but I just kept doing it because I liked it. I liked to play, I liked the extra training, and just liked being on the field.”
The work eventually did pay off. Alex made the Galaxy’s U15/16 roster for the 2016 Development Academy Final against FC Dallas, though he only played the final minutes of a disappointing 2-0 loss.
The next year he became a fixture and helped the Galaxy U17/18 team reach its first Development Academy Final. But it would be another bitter ending, as Texans FC Houston defeated LA 2-1 in the 2017 Championship.
That August he made his debut with LA Galaxy II, the club’s USL affiliate, through the club’s agreement that Academy players could play while retaining their amateur status.
By the summer of 2018, his confidence was sky high and he was determined to get the Galaxy U18/19 to the Development Academy Finals. In the DA Playoffs in June, Alex scored on free kick in a win over Montreal, a wicked left-footed, upper 90 shot in a win over Houston, and a penalty kick against Philadelphia to advance to the Semifinals.
On July 1, 2018, he scored his first goal for a professional side, curling in left-footed freekick in Galaxy II’s 5-3 win over Seattle. But his attention quickly turned back to the Academy.
“I said, there’s going to be a third (Final), and we HAVE to win it,” he recalled of approaching the 2018 Academy Finals in Kansas City. “I was the captain and I knew I had to lead the players in the right direction. We felt it. There was more energy, more belief.”
On July 8 the Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps squared off in a dramatic U18/19 Development Academy Semifinal in which both goalkeepers played outstanding to send the scoreless game into overtime.
The Galaxy earned a free kick just outside Vancouver’s area in the 109th minute.
“I knew that was my chance,” Alex said of his game-winner. “The ball was stopped, I had all the time in the world.”
Like he is for all Academy Finals, Tab Ramos was field-side watching.
“I was at the game, and I remember thinking the same,” Ramos recalled. “I was thinking Alex should take the freekick because he would make the shot.”
“I shot it, there was a deflection but it went in,” Mendez added. “I was running like crazy, and in all the excitement I was kinda blacking out. So while hugging everyone I told our coach to hold on to me.”
Back in another Final, the Galaxy and NYCFC squared off in another dramatic yet scoreless game. Only this one would be decided on penalty kicks.
“I was thinking, this game is way too intense for a ‘keeper not to dive,” Mendez said of his converted Panenka. “I chipped it – didn’t hit the ball so well – but he dove and I scored. My heart kind of dropped when I hit but thankfully it went in.”
It wasn’t enough. NYCFC edged LA 5-3 on PKs to claim the title, handing Mendez and a bulk of his teammates their third straight finals loss.
He had given everything he could, but couldn’t help wondering what else he could have done. The team landed back in LA the next morning, and he had a flight that night to Europe for an arranged tryout. Yet he couldn’t get over the disappointment. He wasn’t sure he was ready to move on.
“I got home and saw my mom, and after she tried to comfort me, she told me, “if you don’t go, you’ll never know what could’ve happened,” Mendez said. “And I heard the same from others around me. The support was there, and I had to go.”
A few hours later he was back at the airport on his way to Germany.
“Freiburg really set it out for me, they really made me feel comfortable,” he said of agreeing to join the Bundesliga side. “They showed me that they wanted me, and you can tell the players care and the coaching staff was great.”
Mendez will join the club in January, hopefully after making it to, and finally winning, another final.
“Qualifying for the World Cup would mean a lot,” he mused. “Putting the USA crest on your shirt, you know what’s behind it. We’re representing our country, and we don’t want to let anyone down.”