"If I were you, I'd consider playing for Mexico," said Jill Ellis, then the coach of the U20 U.S. women's national team.
This wasn't quite the advice midfielder Teresa Noyola expected to hear in late 2009. After all, the Mexico-born, U.S.-raised Noyola had been named America's best prep player in 2008, and she was the youngest member at 18 years old on the U20 roster that included future U.S. stars Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux. She would go on to win the 2011 Hermann Trophy as a senior at Stanford University, the same award -- college soccer's Heisman -- current U.S. mainstays Kelley O'Hara and Christen Press won in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Of course Noyola wanted to play for the team she'd admired since she was a 9-year-old sitting in Stanford Stadium near her home in Palo Alto, California, watching Mia Hamm and the United States beat Brazil in the 1999 Women's World Cup semis en route to the title. But despite her credentials and a successful freshman year with Stanford, the midfielder struggled with new defensive responsibilities as a sophomore and lost her starting position, which also tarnished her status with the Yanks.
Still, Noyola never saw the bomb coming from Ellis, now head coach for the U.S. women's national team. "At that time," Noyola says, "I was fully committed to the U.S."
As Noyola walked away from that conversation, she reached the same conclusion many American women with soccer skills and more than one passport had before her: If she was ever going to play in the World Cup, it wouldn't be for the United States, the standard bearer of women's soccer. Instead, she would have to achieve her dreams wearing the colors of another country.
Recruiting dual-citizen athletes is nothing new in international sports, for women or men. There were five foreign-born players on the team that represented the U.S. men at the 2014 World Cup. Most notably, Jermaine Jones, who scored against Portugal in group play, and four other German-Americans. The U.S. women have one: Canadian-American Sydney Leroux. There are a couple of reasons for that: Competition for spots with the U.S. women is fierce, and U.S. Soccer hasn't been overly successful in discovering or nurturing talent that doesn't fit the traditional big-strong-fast mold.
"We don't do a good job finding smaller, quicker players and investing in them," says Tony DiCicco, who coached the iconic 1999 U.S. team. "Because our system is about winning and not development, strong and physically developed players beat technical ones who have yet to reach maturity. Picture a guy like Lionel Messi getting pushed aside because somebody said he's not big enough to make it."
But for a developing team like Mexico -- who against the United States has only won once in 30 tries since 1991 and was outscored 27-1 in five matches over the last two years, including a 5-1 drubbing on May 17 -- luring dual citizens to its side was the only way to compete early on. Mexican-Americans comprised half of the 20-player roster when Las Tri made its World Cup debut in 1999, and many of them didn't speak Spanish. "We were learning the Mexican national anthem two days before our first game," says former Mexico captain and Texas native Monica Gonzalez, now an ESPN analyst who will be part of Fox's studio coverage for the Women's World Cup.
Only two Mexican-born players were in the lineup for their opener against Brazil in that 1999 tournament. That didn't sit well with some. (It's said that star striker Maribel Dominguez reportedly cursed out coach Leonardo Cuellar for starting too many Americans.) Even with reinforcements in the fold, that team struggled, losing all three matches and scoring just one goal along the way. But its mere presence at the tournament triggered a wave of nationwide interest in girls soccer at the grass-roots level. Youth programs popped up all over the country, as did websites dedicated to the women's game. Even a handful of Mexican universities began offering scholarships to female student-athletes.
But while the quality of homegrown Mexican players has improved, it's tough getting away from the American influence: 10 members of 23-woman roster for Canada 2015 were born in the United States, including starters Alina Garciamendez, Bianca Sierra and Veronica Perez. The best Mexican-trained players still head north to play NCAA Division I soccer, and with no professional women's league in Mexico, the pro-level players sign for National Women's Soccer League teams. When the NWSL season started in April, Perez, Sierra and two other Mexican national teamers were allocated to league teams, with their salaries paid by the Mexican Football Federation. Noyola would have been one of them, but the Houston Dash released her in January. She is still chasing down old ghosts of not being able to transition into a two-way role.
Making the move to Mexico's national team
Noyola, now 25, admits that she was always intrigued by the idea of playing for Mexico -- even before her conversation with Ellis in 2009. She had faced Las Tri's youth teams on several occasions and liked the way they played. "There were things I identified with: the comfort on the ball, the dribbling skill, the combination play. It was fun to watch," Noyola says. "I also remember seeing little players, and at the time, I was probably the smallest player on the U.S. team." (She's 5 feet, 3 inches.)
Through an intermediary, Noyola informed Mexico's coach that she was open to the idea of at least seeing if the pitch was greener on the other side. Soon she had accepted -- with Ellis' blessing -- an invite to a Mexican U20 training camp. "I discovered things about my game that were missing that I could improve upon, like my tactical understanding of the game," Noyola says. "It was different. It was a good experience."
So was her first season at Stanford. But things got tougher the following year, when coach Paul Ratcliffe demanded that she focus on her defensive responsibilities. As a result, her attacking style of play -- while not particularly fast, she has always been technical, with smarts and vision -- suffered. "That was kind of my introduction to some of the more negative parts of the American game," she says. "My instincts to dribble were not as appreciated and being a smaller player was held against me. I've heard that a lot, not being physical enough, defending. There weren't many players like me, who had a more Latin style, which to me has more of a creative way to it. It's fluid."
School was getting harder, too, and she took a break from the U.S. team. But she won her starting job back with the Cardinal by the end of the college season, leading to that December 2009 invite from Ellis.
Then came The Talk.
But Noyola wasn't quite ready to concede. She went on to play for the Yanks at the 2010 U20 World Cup, coming off the bench in two of four games but failing to make an impact as the United States was eliminated in the quarterfinals. By then her mind was made up. When she got home, she told FIFA that she wanted to change her international allegiance, which global soccer's governing body allows so long as the dual citizen hasn't played in an official senior team match. The switch is permanent, however. For the rest of her career, she would be tied to Mexico.
Mexico still seeks first World Cup win
This Mexican team is undoubtedly better than the 1999 version, even if its growth is hard to quantify. It has remained in the Nos. 20 to 30 range of the FIFA rankings for the last dozen years, but that probably has more to do with the improvement of national teams across the board than any stagnation. Indeed, this summer will mark the first time Las Tri has participated in consecutive World Cups.
And four years after making the switch, Noyola is about to play in her second tournament. She represented her birth nation at Germany 2011, subbing in twice in three games. And while she has been in and out of Cuellar's lineup in recent tune-ups, she remains in contention for a starting role next month, when Las Tri will be hoping to notch its first win at a World Cup or Olympics. Its best chance could come in its June 9 opener against Colombia, a side Mexico has never lost to. Even England, Mexico's second foe, is beatable; the two teams tied when they met in group play in the last World Cup.
Noyola isn't alone in thinking that a respectable showing in Canada could help nudge the women's game closer to the mainstream in the futbol-mad nation of 122 million. "As soon as the women do something significant," Gonzalez says, "the country is going to go crazy for them."
The competition also represents the perfect opportunity for Noyola to prove her doubters wrong and show that she's a complete player. That's one reason why Noyola has no regrets -- and no animosity toward Ellis. "Jill said it didn't matter which team I played for as long as I was playing at the international level," Noyola says.
Turns out it was some of the best advice she ever got.