U.S. team hoping Corona heads north

Updated: August 24, 2011, 4:28 PM ET
By Jeff Carlisle |

MexsportJoe Corona made history by scoring Tijuana's first goal in Mexico's First Division.

TIJUANA, Mexico -- As Joe Corona sat underneath the stands of Tijuana's Estadio Caliente, he looked content. Despite the fact that he is eligible to 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 and 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."

But the fact remains that Corona has been forced to think about his international future in recent weeks, and not just from the inquisitive media. 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 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."

Of course, this wouldn't have been the point of no return that it appears to be. Given that the match was a friendly, Corona's international future would not have been irrevocably tied to the United States. That can only happen in an official FIFA competition. Granted, the sight of Corona donning a U.S. jersey would have sent a powerful message to Mexico, but the reality is the player could have filed a one-time switch later on if he chose to do so.

Even with Jurgen Klinsmann taking over for Bradley, the chase goes on. 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 backline -- with current U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley among them -- and Corona was largely held in check, even after Xolos coach Joaquin Del Olmo moved him into a more central attacking role in the second half.

Reached by telephone after the match, Corona indicated 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."

The U.S. team's competitors have not been idle, however. According to Corona, El Salvador inquired about his availability prior to the Gold Cup, but he managed to keep it at bay, stressing the importance of acclimating to life in Mexico's top flight.

El Tri's interest has been more circumspect, and 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 one thing that is certain is Corona is on El Tri's radar. A scout from Mexico's U-23 team is rumored to have attended last weekend's game against Cruz Azul, and Del Olmo is seemingly among those who think Corona has what it takes to represent Mexico at the international level.

[+] EnlargeJurgen Klinsmann
Neilson Barnard/Bongarts/Getty ImagesU.S. team manager Jurgen Klinsmann was scouting Joe Corona this summer.

"I personally would like to see [Corona] play for Mexico," Del Olmo said, with the aid of a translator. "He's a different player to what we have in Mexico, but for Joe it will be a hard decision when the time comes to decide."

Especially given the direction in which his parents are pushing him. If the U.S. has learned anything from the episodes involving Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic -- two U.S. citizens who cast their international lot with Italy and Serbia, respectively -- it's family influences can play a huge role in a player's ultimate decision. On that count, both of Corona's parents prefer he play for Mexico.

"That's one thing where they're on the same page," he said of his parents.

Different Mentality

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 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 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, if ever, got caught in possession. Then 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's defense with a deft pass to Jose Sand at the top of the box. Sand eventually fed Dayro Moreno for the game-clinching goal.

"It's like kind of like 'The Matrix' movies, where everything is in slow motion," said Raul Galindo, Corona's coach at Sweetwater High School near San Diego. "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-à-vis Mexico. But Del Olmo, a former Mexican international, noted how Corona has benefited from both soccer cultures 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, and in many ways he did. His family moved to the Mexican town of La Gloria, near Rosarito, when Corona was 3 years old. It was 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. Later he 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 that time.

"Those coaches were only looking at players from the bigger clubs," he said.

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.

Eventually Corona latched on with the San Diego Nomads, which have 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 Decision

The notoriety gained at the high school and club levels saw 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 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's finances was deep and immediate.

"It was very hard for us," Angel Corona said 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 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 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. 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 work to bolster the family's finances. But in the interim another door 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,'" Corona recalled. "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. 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," Xolos' general manager Ignacio Palou said, 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 his 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.

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 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."

The Gem

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 Jorge Alberto 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 indicates 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.

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, he 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," Palou added. "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, in which 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."

Corona's club destination isn't the only big decision he'll have to make. Obviously, his international future is still to be determined as well.

"I think that will be as hard as the decision I took to leave school," Corona said. "It depends. Who calls you first? It's not like they all call you at the same time. The U.S. could call me tomorrow and Mexico could call me in six years."

Galindo, Corona's high school coach, said he thinks the decision won't be hard at all. "With Joe, it's very simple," he said. "If you call him, you'll have him."

For U.S. fans, that call can't come soon enough.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.