There is something about the Bundesliga which attracts American players. When Tyler Adams made his RB Leipzig debut last week, he became the ninth American to appear in the German top flight this season.
There are also a number of Americans lurking in the reserves and youth sides of these clubs, one of whom has the potential to be the best of them all — Alexis Méndez.
Méndez joined Freiburg last September before going on to impress at the 2018 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship a month or so later. Plenty of other clubs will have been wishing they had tried to sign him after watching that tournament.
Freiburg were ahead of the game, but Méndez will have been on the scouting shortlists of numerous clubs across Europe, nevertheless.
The next step is the most exciting but can also be the most difficult, and fans of both Freiburg and the United States Men’s National Team eager for him to make his first senior start.
With a name like Méndez you would guess that there is some Mexican heritage somewhere along the line, and you’d be right.
The 18-year-old is eligible to play for Mexico thanks to his parents, who were born in the country, and though there is a hint of Spanish in his accent, Méndez grew up in South Central LA and has so far represented the US at youth level.
He told the US Soccer website it was his uncle, Armando, who first got him into soccer.
“I was the only one on my team that was left footed at the time, and my uncle would tell me there’s something special about left-footed players,” he said.
“I couldn't tell at the time, but as the years went by for some reason I felt like I saw things that some players didn’t.”
This added vision alerted scouts at the now-defunct Los Angeles based side, Chivas USA. Though Méndez is a Club América fan, this MLS club affiliated with Liga MX side Chivas Guadalajara seemed like the ideal setting for him to learn to play soccer both culturally and technically.
When the Chivas club folded, Méndez followed coach Brian Kleiban to the LA Galaxy where he played in youth sides from 2015 until his move to Germany three years later.
He failed to make an appearance for Galaxy, but the extra hours spent playing soccer with a handful of his team-mates after training, just for fun, paid off at international level and earned him a move to Europe.
“He’s world class,” is the bold statement from another former Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo, who was also an assistant with the US Under-20 team.
“He can play anywhere in the world. This kid is something special.”
This is high praise, but anyone who’s managed to catch a glimpse of Méndez during his youth career would understand why it’s so easy to get carried away when dishing out the superlatives.
He’s a natural talent – which can be few and far between on US shores – but as we’ve seen throughout this series that could be about to change. Though there is a long way to go Méndez could be the brightest of the next generation of USMNT stars.
There is no data available for Méndez from senior football because he hasn’t played any games beyond youth level, but we can take a look at some of the data from these games in order to begin to get a picture of what type of player he is.
It’s perhaps surprising that for a player who might be considered a creator, he has more goals on average per game (0.7) than he has assists (0.35).
Méndez averages 2.58 dribbles per game and 2.93 shots. This immediately suggests he has the tools to play as an attacking midfielder or second striker as much as he does as a playmaker in midfield.
His key passes per game currently stand at 1.88, but you would expect this to rise in senior football where there will be more quality around him.
He also averages 2.93 interceptions per game, but isn’t the best in ground or aerial duels, winning just 15 per cent of his defensive duels and 35 per cent of his aerial duels.
Méndez has a pass success of 83 per cent across these games for the US youth sides and LA Galaxy II, making 5.51 passes into the final third per game with a success rate of 72 per cent.
He stands at 180cm tall (5ft 11in) so he certainly isn’t a small midfielder, but he has the technical ability and close control of some of the more diminutive midfield operators.
One of the things which immediately stands out when watching Méndez is the accuracy he possesses in his left foot. Passes, shots and set pieces are all delivered with unerring correctness, and you get the impression he would be an asset to a team even if he never once broke into a jog, and instead spent the whole time stood around spraying passes, shots, and free-kicks.
Méndez can take these free-kicks from either side of the pitch. Even though left footers normally favour dead ball situations on the right, he has scored from both sides.
He can take corners from either side too and has also scored a number of penalties already in his youth career.
In a game against Puerto Rico at the CONCACAF tournament, there was a moment where he intercepted a pass out from the back into midfield, and played a through-ball to his team-mate, almost in the same movement.
Méndez possesses intelligence on the pitch which can see him beat much faster players. Although there is some speed there, he never seems to have to use it.
He is skilful enough to beat players without having to rely on speed, and when you can shoot from outside the box like he can, or play an attacking team-mate in on goal with a through ball, who needs to run into the area it anyway?
Physically he might need some finetuning before he makes his senior debut, and that may be one reason for the delay in this. He can be knocked off the ball in 50-50 battles especially in defence where there is more reliance on strength, but his preparation and training for the Bundesliga may help him improve. If he’s the one in space with possession he can usually brush off opponents or win a free kick.
He has played most positions across the centre of midfield from deep-lying playmaker to attacking midfielder, but his best role appears to be the most advanced midfielder in a three or the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1.
Freiburg have said that one specific game which alerted them to the Méndez was a 7-2 LA Galaxy II win against Las Vegas Lights in May 2018.
In this game the teenager made three 'second assists' (hockey assists), one of which was also an interception, and a neat first time around the corner assist for Ethan Zubak among a good general display.
International - USMNT
For a real showcase of Méndez’s ability, watch the USMNT games at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship last year which they won for the second time in as many years.
Méndez was awarded the Golden Ball and was included alongside goalkeeper Brady Scott, Sergino Dest, Christ Gloster, Mark McKenzie, Brandon Servania, Ayo Akinola, and Ulysses Llanez in the team of the tournament.
He scored eight goals in seven games, adding six assists, having only sat out one game – against St. Vincent.
His coach, Tab Ramos, explained what makes him tick, and why he was so effective in this competition.
“Alex, first of all, is a special person, and secondly, he’s a special player,” he said.
“He has a great engine, he has great feet, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team. And Alex is a winner. He’s a player that’s going to lead the way in this tournament and one that we’re counting on to do big things.”
The USMNT needs this type of player to go alongside the relentless box to box work of Tyler Adams, the all round play of Weston McKennie, and the more defensive deep-lying playmakers such as Chris Durkin to name but a few.
These players could make up for some of Méndez’s weaknesses, while Méndez himself will offer something to a side only he can give.
Once senior club football arrives, a senior international cap must surely follow.
The caveat to all the praise here is that these displays are at youth level, and there may be a reason coaches haven’t seen fit to introduce him to senior football at any of his club sides so far, or at international level.
The move to Germany should be good for him in that he will not be put into the side until he’s ready — physically and mentally — but German sides also seem more willing to give young players a chance than teams in other leagues.
It is a good model for the teams as the best young players want to join them, as we’ve seen with the number of American and, more recently, British players seeking a move to the Bundesliga. And it’s a good model for the players, who experience action in a top European league, receive some of the best coaching around, but also develop away from the hype.
Méndez will be hyped by soccer fans back home in the US, though, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be. The best players take this in their stride and feed off it.
Though there is a long way to go and he might be considered to be behind some of the players of his age in terms of first-team action, the start Méndez has made in youth football couldn’t really have been any better.
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