Corona picks Mexico over the U.S.
TIJUANA, Mexico -- As Joe Corona sat underneath the stands of Tijuana's Estadio Caliente, he looked content. Despite the fact he can play international soccer for any one of three countries, there were no obvious signs of inner conflict, no indication of being torn in two. The reason for this is simple: He has been dealing with the push and pull of competing cultures for much of his soccer playing life.
Born in Los Angeles to a Mexican father and a Salvadoran mother, Corona, 21, has been turning heads in the past year for Mexican side Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. (The club name, shortened to Xolos, refers to a breed of dog native to the region). With his sublime technical ability, vision and goal-scoring instincts, he helped Xolos gain promotion from Mexico's Liga de Ascenso into the big-time that is the Primera Division. He has already made a splash this season, scoring two goals in six games while playing mostly as a wide midfielder. His array of skills would clearly benefit any one of three different national teams for which he qualifies.
Yet as Corona pondered his future, he was a picture of tranquility ahead of that weekend's game against Puebla.
"It's not something that is bugging me right now," he said of the international dilemma facing him. "Why make it bug you if you have nothing to announce? Just focus on playing for your club, keep working so someone can notice you. Then start thinking about that."
Just 12 days later, Corona was thinking about it plenty, as he was called up for a training camp with the Mexican U-22 national team that will play in the Pan-American Games this October. It's a call-up that means nothing and everything all at once. Playing for one of Mexico's youth teams does not irrevocably tie Corona to El Tri. In fact, current U.S. international Edgar Castillo represented Mexico's U-23 team eight times and played for the senior side on three occasions. But none of those appearances occurred in an official FIFA competition and he was able to apply to FIFA for a one-time international switch that allowed him to later represent the United States.
Corona is well aware of this back door. Reached by telephone on the day of his call-up, he was careful not to talk in absolute terms. But he sounded every bit like a player whose mind was made up. "Mexico is my priority now," he said. "It's a hard decision, but most likely I will play for Mexico."
The turn of events made a prophet of Raul Galindo, Corona's coach at Sweetwater High School. Over coffee in National City, just outside of San Diego, Galindo insisted that Corona's decision over who to represent wouldn't be difficult at all. He said, "With Joe, it's very simple. If you call him, you'll have him."
So by all appearances, Corona is the latest in a distinguished line of players who could have represented the U.S., yet chose not to. Granted, there have been other dual citizens such as Stuart Holden, Jose Torres and Teal Bunbury who have thrown their lot in with the U.S., but the nature of international soccer is such that fans remember the ones who got away more than the ones who stayed. That's why whenever U.S. citizens like Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi and Serbian defender Neven Subotic experience success at the international level, U.S. fans everywhere can't help but think, "What if?"
What makes Corona's case cut especially deep is just how close he came to wearing red, white and blue. In one of his last acts as U.S. national team manager, Bob Bradley named Corona to the provisional roster for the friendly match against Mexico that took place on Aug. 10. Unfortunately for both player and coach, Bradley was fired before the official roster was announced.
"I guess [the U.S. Soccer Federation] found out Bradley talked to me, so they fired him," joked Corona before adding that had he been named to the official squad, "I think I would have accepted." The U.S. pursuit of Corona continued even after Jurgen Klinsmann took over for Bradley. The USSF sent former U.S. international Brian Quinn to scout Corona during Xolos' 1-1 tie with Puebla. While Corona didn't play badly, it was by no means his best game. Puebla employed a five-man back line -- with current U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley among them -- and Corona was largely held in check, even after Xolos head coach Joaquin Del Olmo moved him into a more central attacking role in the second half.
Reached by telephone after the match, Corona indicated that he had spoken with Quinn. "[Quinn] told me he saw some good stuff, and that he'll still be watching," Corona said. "He didn't say anything about me being called in. He just gave me some feedback."
Unbeknownst to the U.S. -- and even Corona himself -- its window of opportunity was closing. Corona heard that scouts from the Mexican Football Federation watched Xolos' game against Cruz Azul last weekend, and on Wednesday the FMF made its move. Whether it's the right move for Corona, only time will tell. Given the immense amount of talent coming through Mexico's youth ranks, there are questions as to whether Corona would be able to crack a starting lineup that currently features such talented players as Giovani Dos Santos, Pablo Barrera and Andres Guardado.
But for now, all things are possible, and if Corona's choice proves anything, it's that family considerations weigh heavily in such matters. It was true in the cases of Rossi and Subotic, and it's true in this instance. Both of Corona's parents preferred that he play for Mexico. "That's one thing where they're on the same page," he said of his parents.
While Corona's play against Puebla may not make his personal highlight reel, there has been near universal acclaim regarding his performances so far. But nailing down exactly what makes Corona so special is tougher than containing him over 90 minutes. Upon meeting Corona, the trait that makes the biggest impression is his humility. He is after all, a player still living with his parents. There is little sign of ego or bombast, and in many ways this is reflected in his play on the field. For Corona, everything -- including a brilliant play -- has its time and place.
"That's the thing with Joe, he's not a guy you're going to be wowed by with Ronaldo-like moves," said Lev Kirshner, Corona's coach when he was at San Diego State. "He's a very functional and efficient player, and the more you have Joe inside your squad, the more you realize how important his game is, even if he's having a so-called quiet game. And in his moment, he can just really penetrate and hurt a team. He's in good spots a lot."
Those traits were in evidence during Xolos' 3-1 win over Santos Laguna on Aug. 13. For most of the match, Corona was solid, without being spectacular. But it was the little things that added up. He almost always made the right pass. He rarely got caught in possession. With Xolos clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the match, he came up with a play that put the game away. Seemingly hemmed in by three Santos defenders, Corona cracked open the opposition defense with a deft pass to Jose Sand at the top of the box, who eventually fed Dayro Moreno for the game-clinching goal.
"It's like kind of like 'The Matrix' movies where everything is in slow motion," Galindo said. "A guy like him can see if his pass is going to be efficient. As soon as he gets the ball, he actually has a few seconds more than the defender because he's seeing everything that's going on. That's what makes him very special."
By almost any measure, this has been a golden summer for Mexican soccer. The senior team triumphed in the Gold Cup, thoroughly outplaying the U.S. in the final. The U-17 national team won the World Cup, while the U-20s reached the semifinals of that age group's world championship. For that reason, there is a tendency to view all aspects of the U.S. player development system unfavorably vis-a-vis Mexico. But Del Olmo, himself a former Mexican international, noted how Corona has benefited from both soccer cultures in turning him into the player he is today.
"Joe, being educated in the U.S., he has a different mentality than our Mexican-born players," he said. "There are small details. When he makes a bad pass or a bad shot, he doesn't dwell on it. Instead, he has a clean slate and he works hard and he continues doing what he does. Mexico is a country with issues like any other, but his upbringing in the U.S. is visible in his work ethic and his play.
"He's a player that is mentally strong, tactically gifted. He has a lot of goals in him, and he's not scared to take players one-on-one. And he makes great sacrifices for the team in recovering [defensively] and attacking. He goes up and down the field, very similar to a young Landon Donovan."
Crossing the chasm
That Corona even finds himself in the national team conversation counts as something of a miracle. Given his playing background, he seemed destined to fall through the cracks of the U.S. system. His family moved to the Mexican town of La Gloria, near Rosarito, when Corona was 3. It's there that he recalls his first soccer memory as a 7-year-old playing on dirt fields with his friends.
Corona didn't start playing organized soccer until he was 9, but two years later, his father, Angel, and his mother, Yanira, moved the family to San Diego because of the greater educational opportunities. Corona didn't speak any English, and as a consequence didn't immerse himself in soccer right away. His classmates noticed his ability on the soccer field during recess, however, and he eventually joined Aztecs FC, where he played for four years, and later played with Hotspurs USA FC.
The impulse is to think that Corona was soon climbing up the U.S. Soccer ladder, but he stated he never bothered trying out for any teams in the USSF's Olympic Development Program (ODP) during this time. "Those coaches were only looking at players from the bigger clubs," he said. Yet that didn't stop Corona from getting spotted by coaches in the professional ranks. A tryout with Miami FC saw Corona head to Brazilian side Desportivo Brasil when he was 16, but the fact that Corona's education would end caused his parents to put a stop to the endeavor, and he returned to San Diego.
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Eventually Corona latched on with the San Diego Nomads, the side which has produced, among others, Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk. One of Corona's coaches, Paul Holohan, noticed right away that Corona had a professional mentality in everything he did, and wasn't going to be content with just going to college.
"When you're a pro, everything is done with a purpose," said Holohan, who played professionally for Shamrock Rovers in his native Ireland. "There's never anything done -- even passing the ball in a warm-up -- that isn't always done right. That's how it was with Joe. I think he knew that's what it took. Because when you get to that level, if you can't do it, they'll just say, 'Next.'"
He also made a name for himself playing high school soccer for Sweetwater High. During his senior year, Corona captained the Red Devils to the CIF championship, and was named the San Diego Union-Tribune's 2008 Player of the Year.
The notoriety gained at both high school and club level helped Corona earn a partial scholarship to San Diego State. During his freshman year Corona scored three goals and added one assist, and his collegiate future looked bright.
"We were very high on Joe coming back for his sophomore year," Kirshner said. "We expected him to be fighting for a starting job as a regular."
Unfortunately for Corona, life intervened. In April of 2009, his sister, Miriam, nearly died after suffering a stroke caused by a brain aneurysm, and was hospitalized for an extended period. The strain on the family finances was deep and immediate.
"It was very hard for us," said Angel Corona by telephone, with Joe acting as translator. "My wife and I, we had to leave our jobs for a while because we had to take care of Miriam."
That meant that the partial scholarship Corona received was no longer enough to allow him to stay at San Diego State. Even though his grades during his freshman year qualified him for a larger scholarship, the increase in fees that took place throughout the California state university system meant that in terms of cost, he was essentially treading water. By the time Corona made Kirshner aware of his predicament, it was too late.
"[Corona] walks in literally days before preseason camp starts and says he doesn't have the financial wherewithal to handle it, and that he's being asked to move back to Mexico to work for the family," Kirshner said. "We just kind of got handcuffed getting such a late notice on it. We weren't able to try and adjust his scholarship. Had we had a little bit more of an understanding of it, obviously we would have done things. I don't know if it would have worked, but we would have tried to do some things because we didn't want to lose Joe."
It was a situation riddled with irony. The pay-to-play aspect of the U.S. club system is deemed to be one of its biggest weaknesses in that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are often forced to exit the system before they can get discovered or obtain the Holy Grail that is a college scholarship. Yet throughout his club career, sponsors had always picked up the tab so Corona could play soccer. Alas, in this instance, the burden of pay-to-play had bitten Corona after he had safely navigated the club soccer waters.
The backup plan was for Corona to attend community college, where the costs were considerably lower, and also work to bolster the family finances. But in the interim another door had opened. At the urging of his friend, Felix Valdovinos, Corona attended an open tryout for Xolos.
"At the time, I said, 'I'm good right now. I'm happy at San Diego State, and hopefully they can raise my scholarship so I can still go to school there,'" recalled Corona. "He was like, 'Come on, you won't lose anything. Let's just go to the tryout and see how it goes.' So I came with him and we crossed the border to try out."
Corona quickly impressed, and was soon playing with Xolos' reserve team in the Mexican Third Division. And so an immense decision was in front of him. Leave school and turn professional, or go to community college in the hope that he could at some point make his way back to San Diego State. "At the time we were in the Second Division, the Liga de Ascenso," said Xolos general manager Ignacio Palou, with the help of a translator. "It wasn't clear to Joe yet, so it was a hard decision. I remember when he came to us, our youth coach, Jorge Torres, told us Joe wants to leave because he wants to do something with his life. We told him not to get frustrated, that he would have a chance to progress with us."
For a month, Corona weighed the pros and cons, calling it "the hardest decision I ever made." He insists his family wanted him to stay in school, especially since that was one of the primary reasons for returning to the U.S. in the first place. The financial realities, not to mention the dream of playing professionally that he had held since childhood, pulled him in the opposite direction. One day, his mind would be set on staying in school, the next he would think that going pro was the right path. And then, as if the decision wasn't difficult enough, Corona's world was rocked once again. His best friend, Anthony Perez, collapsed on the field in the middle of an amateur game back in San Diego and died of a heart attack.
"He was my best friend since middle school, since we were little kids," Corona said. "We played together for almost our whole lives. When he passed away, it was very hard. When I made that decision, I prayed and I asked him to be there with me, that I was going to try my best to make it pro. It did influence my decision."
Palou is sitting in the unfinished upper floor of what will soon be a dormitory for Xolos' youth academy. A former professional with Puebla, Leon and Cruz Azul, Palou looks out over the field below -- the one where Corona tried out two years ago -- and watches roughly 50 of the club's 150 youth players practice.
A subsequent tour of the facility shows the depth of Xolos' ambition since its founding in 2007. When completed, the dormitory will contain 50 beds. Two grass fields are currently under construction. The club also has youth players located in Mexico City and Guadalajara.
But make no mistake. Xolos' dream, and that of team president Jorgealberto Hank, is to be the team of the entire region, irrespective of the border that is a mere five-minute drive from the team's stadium. The club's goal is that within five years, 60 percent of the first-team squad will hail from the surrounding area. Palou indicated that the club already has 10 players with dual U.S./Mexico citizenship playing with various teams within the club, including U.S. U-20 international Christian Flores.
And even though Corona isn't a product of Xolos' youth academy, he is held up as the local boy made good, and with good reason. Corona's impact on the club since joining in 2009 has been considerable. After spending four months in the reserves, Corona was promoted to the first team, and his knack for delivering on big occasions has been evident ever since. He not only scored in the promotion playoffs against Irapuato last May, but he also scored the club's first goal in the Primera Division against Morelia. His image can be seen on everything from the club's website to press credentials. His success has certainly made an impression on the club's younger players. "Joe's an inspiration," Flores said. "If he can do it, we can do it too. And he's just dedicated. If you want to make it, you have to dedicate the time like he has."
"For us Joe is a gem," added Palou. "He has too much talent, too much energy, and he has clear goals. We believe that because of his mentality, that he's not only going to be able to play for a national team, but he'll be playing in Europe."
That raises the question of just how long Xolos can hang on to Corona. Del Olmo indicated that other teams in Mexico started inquiring about Corona's availability during last summer's FMF draft, where nearly all player transfers take place.
"Joe is a figure in our institution, so for the moment he's staying," Del Olmo said. "But it will be a hard decision for us when it comes later on."
It will be a hard decision for Corona as well, but he already has considerable experience making tough decisions. So far, each one has helped him improve his situation. But the U.S. will hold out hope -- however faint -- that his most recent choice doesn't work out as planned, and that Corona ends up back in its arms.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.