News Matches
United States

Who is Alejandro Zendejas? The Club America 'baller' in the middle of a bitter tug of war between USMNT and Mexico

17:00 EAT 25/01/2023
Zendejas Club America 2022
The winger was accused of "extortion" by former Mexico boss Tata Martino. Now he's with the U.S. for the first time in years.

Alejandro Zendejas wasn't going to be drawn in.

As reporter after reporter asked about the ongoing tug of war between the U.S. men's national team and Mexico, Zendejas offered some version of the same answer over and over again. Reporters rephrased their question, Zendejas rephrased his answer, and on it went.

Zendejas didn't reveal much, repeatedly saying he was just living in the present and enjoying his first U.S. men's national team camp. The Club America star said he was excited to be here, excited to see some old friends and excited to maybe get his first USMNT cap.

"I'm just enjoying the moment," he said when pressed on his international status. "I'm enjoying this week. It's fun to reconnect with a bunch of players that I used to play with. And like I said, it's an honor to be here."

But, in not revealing much, Zendejas did reveal something: that the tug of war is likely still on and that everything remains on the table.

The 24-year-old winger is back with the U.S. national team program after nearly eight years away. Those years were spent with Mexico and, as Zendejas joins the USMNT's January camp, his international future is the talking point, even if he himself isn't willing to talk about it.

As a teenager, Zendejas, who was born in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico before moving to El Paso as a child, was a regular for the U.S. U-17 squad that also features future USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams.

Like those two, Zendejas looked destined for a bright future with the USMNT someday, and the winger says that Pulisic was among those to reach out to him when he got his call-up.

"Alex is an absolute baller," said Brandon Vazquez, another member of that U-17 team that is also in USMNT camp for the first time.

"He's so shifty. His velocity and speed are great. He's amazing on the ball, so playing with him is always really, really fun."

Everything changed, though, when Zendejas left the FC Dallas system to join Mexican giants Chivas in June 2016. In order to fulfill the club's requirement to only play Mexican players, Zendejas agreed to reject future U.S. call-ups should they occur.

In August 2017, he made his debut for Mexico's U-21s, and in October 2021, he made his senior debut under Gerardo 'Tata' Martino in a friendly against Ecuador for his first of two senior caps.

As it turns out, though, Zendejas wasn't eligible to make those appearances. He'd never filed a one-time switch to represent Mexico after playing for the U.S. in official competitions. Zendejas, by FIFA law, was still an American player, having not filed the proper paperwork to represent Mexico.

According to Martino, Zendejas refused to sign a one-time switch unless guaranteed a World Cup spot, with the now-ex-Mexico manager accusing him of "extortion".

“The player had to sign a document and he didn’t want to sign it,” Martino said back in September. “There is no federation problem, nor a coach problem.

"His demand or his doubt is whether or not he is going to go to a World Cup and in that case I do not want a player who thinks that way. It’s almost an extortion.

“But the reality is that a document had to be signed, a federation transfer, and the footballer first said that he was going to sign it and then he did not sign it. That’s what they told me.”

On January 10, Mexico was penalized for playing Zendejas while he wasn't an eligible player. They were ordered to forfeit the two friendlies he played for the senior team, three friendlies he played for the U-23s and pay a fine for violating eligibility rules.

So, what is it that makes Zendejas so interesting? Why is the USMNT ready to bring him back after all of these years away? And why is there a chance that Mexico could still be interested despite the controversy?

Well, firstly he's a left-footed winger, something that most national teams can use. He's technically gifted and versatile, with the ability to play on either side or as a central midfielder.

As he heads to January camp, Zendejas has found a home with Club America after failing to break through at Chivas before, ultimately, impressing at Necaxa. His success at the latter paved the way for him to make the move to America, arguably Mexico's biggest club, in January 2022.

And since making that move, Zendejas has excelled. After scoring five goals in 18 games in his first season, he's scored eight times in 22 appearances in the 2022-23 campaign.

The most recent of those goals came just last weekend when he scored America's second in a 2-2 draw with Puebla.

It was an absolutely stunning finish, as Zendejas smashed a bouncing ball into the back of the net after previously assistant Henry Martin's opener for America.

Zendejas is, by all accounts, a key figure for his club, which did U.S. Soccer a favor in releasing him for this camp.

He will play Wednesday's friendly against Serbia before heading back to his club, missing the Colombia friendly in favor of a Liga MX clash with Mazatlan.

"When we put the list together, we put names on there and he was one of them," interim USMNT boss Anthony Hudson said.

"I have to be honest, I didn't think there was any chance we were gonna get him in because he's obviously playing in season right now, so when we made the call to the club, the club was amazing, really positive, very supportive of him coming in. I was shocked."

Even though he's with the U.S. currently, Zendejas still has a decision to make.

A U.S. Soccer spokesman confirmed that the winger is, in fact, still eligible for Mexico, although he would have to file that pesky one-time switch to represent El Tri.

Career-wise, it may be the best move.

The U.S. has a plethora of wingers, headlined by Zendejas' old teammate Pulisic. Stars like Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna are also in the mix, and that's not even getting to a few of the other promising youngsters in this camp and elsewhere.

However, there's a chance that Zendejas also burned some bridges with El Tri with all of the controversy that occurred around his eligibility.

Complicating that decision is the fact that, right now, neither team has a manager.

The USMNT is in a state of flux after recent allegations against Gregg Berhalter and an ensuing clash with the Reyna family derailed the coach hiring process.

And Mexico, too, are searching for a new coach, with Marcelo Bielsa among those linked with taking over as Martino's replacement.

Who knows when that decision will come? He won't have to make it until at least March, when the U.S. and Mexico will both play official games in the CONCACAF Nations League.

But, until then, we know Zendejas' answer.

"Hopefully, tomorrow will be a great game for the whole team," he said. "Hopefully, we get that win and then on a personal level, on that side, I hope it's a great game for me and then I'll probably focus on the future once we get to that point again."