MIAMI, Florida – This Friday at 7:00 PM ET, Concacaf will be airing a re-broadcast of two matches from the 2018 Concacaf Men’s Under-20 Championship: The Qualification Stage Group H match between Panama and Mexico and the Final between the United States and Mexico. The matches can be seen on Concacaf’s YouTube and Facebook pages, plus the Concacaf App.
U.S. MF Alex Mendez deservedly won Golden Ball honors for his star-studded performance during the tournament in which he scored eight goals in seven matches, including both U.S. goals in a 2-0 win in the Final against Mexico.
Looking back on that month-long stretch in Bradenton, Florida, it is the brotherhood of that U.S. team that Mendez remembers most fondly.
“What stands out is the bond that we had between the players and everyone. Everyone was so close, it was a team of brothers, including the coaching staff and everyone that was there to support. Going out to games, you always felt that love that was around,” said Mendez in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
In addition to Mendez, the U.S. boasted a number of talented players who since have received call-ups to the Senior National Team, including FW Uly Llanez, DF Sergino Dest and MF Paxton Pomykal.
“That’s another thing about this team, that from the start we all looked around, we all saw the quality within each other and I think everyone was motivated to be on the field and happy there,” said Mendez.
The U.S. enjoyed a prolific group stage, outscoring opponents 39-2 on their way to a perfect 5W-0D-0L record, before posting another two wins in the Qualification Stage against Costa Rica and Honduras to punch their ticket to the 2018 CMU20 Final and the 2019 FIFA Men’s Under-20 World Cup in Poland.
“It was a great feeling knowing that I could represent my country on the world’s stage, not only that but that my family and friends would be there watching. It was something that was really special and I’m pretty certain not just for me but for everyone on the team.
Once we qualified, it was a great time and we were all happy, but I think during that time after that game we were focused on Mexico. I think that everyone was up for it and everyone was pumped and ready,” said Mendez.
Mendez’s finest moment came in the Final against Mexico, as he spearheaded the U.S. victory against their historic rivals. For a young Mexican-American, his favorite goal of the tournament was his first strike against El Tricolor, but it was a score that also contained many emotions.
“I’d say the first goal versus Mexico was my favorite, based off the emotion, just because the meaning of the game, the opponent and what it meant to me… Going into the game my parents and my family were saying, ‘You have to go out there and win the game” and in my head I was saying of course I do, but when I scored the first goal there were so many emotions that came out just because of my background, but it was a great feeling,” said Mendez.
Mendez’s performance in the Final solidified his standing as the tournament’s most valuable player, thus fulfilling the prediction of friend and teammate Llanez prior to the match.
“It’s funny, right before that game I was on the bus and Uly [Llanez] was right in front of me and he said, ‘You know if we win this game, you can get the Golden Ball. You’ve scored a lot of goals and you’ve been playing well’…. Going into the game, I score and then I score a second, and then the game ends and the players are coming at me saying ‘MVP! MVP!’ and then I remembered Uly’s words in my head and I thought, ‘Wow, I might actually win this award’. When they gave me the Golden Ball, I was honestly really happy,” said Mendez.
That successful 2018 CMU20 laid the groundwork for another very good campaign in the 2019 FIFA Men’s Under-20 World Cup in which Mendez started four of the five U.S. matches, helping the team reach the quarterfinals before falling to Ecuador, 2-1.
“It was great. We went out there from the very first day you could see that everyone was focused and everyone was ready to compete. We handled everything well and unluckily we didn’t get the results that we wanted to achieve,” said Mendez.
Overall, though, Mendez will forever cherish the opportunity of playing in an Under-20 World Cup and for how the U.S. managed to bounce back from an opening 2-1 defeat to Ukraine.
“Personally, it was a great feeling, going out to those games. The first game we didn’t win and we knew we were better than that, so going out to the second game I think everyone was really motivated and when we got our first win, everyone was pumped and said ‘Ok, this is what we’re capable of if not more’. Everyone was excited to keep playing and play the big games,” said Mendez.
Throughout it all, the guiding force for Mendez and the U.S. team was Head Coach Tab Ramos, who gave the players the liberty they sought to express themselves on the field.
“It was something special to play for Tab. I think coaches have their own way of coaching a team, and the way that he had us was basically to give us freedom to do what we do best. But then he was there to be strict enough so that we listened to what he was trying to point out to us, so I think it was a really great balance of him giving us our freedom, but also being there for what he wanted us to do and to show,” said Mendez.
At present, Mendez is in the Netherlands where he plays with legendary Dutch side Ajax. The California native has appeared in 22 matches for the club’s reserve team, Jong Ajax, where his development has grown substantially.
“I think I have gotten better at understanding the game and knowing where to be at the right times. There are so many players here that understand the game so well because they have been here for so many years, so coming here and not being afraid to ask questions has played a big part in my development here. Technically, every player here is good on the ball and without the ball, so I think that has helped me a lot since I came here,” said Mendez.
And once football resumes in the Netherlands, Mendez has aspirations of adding another item to his already long list of accomplishments in the form of a first team call-up.
“I just need to keep working and proving myself and I think it’ll just come with hard work and just being dedicated to what I do,” concluded Mendez.