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MLS Roundtable: Dissecting key stories heading into 2017

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There is so much to talk about heading into the 2017 Major League Soccer season.

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Big name Designated Players have departed, two new teams have arrived, rivals are battling for dominance and plenty of young, exciting DPs are about to arrive, not to mention plenty of top young talent coming through the academy setups.

[ MORE: MLS 2017 schedule

Somehow, we’ve managed to whittle things down into a concise roundtable which debates plenty of the intriguing topics coming up in MLS in 2017.

Okay, ready?

Let’s chat MLS.

What are your thoughts on the switch from veteran DPs in MLS to a bigger emphasis on young talent? Is it a good or bad move for the league long-term?

Joe Prince-Wright: I’m intrigued to see how this goes. DPs have put fans into the stands over the past 10 years but you’d like to think those supporters would now turn up regardless of Lampard, Beckham, Pirlo or Henry playing. It’s hard to get this one right with big markets still craving star names. I think that improving the overall quality of the league most now be the gameplan rather than have two or three world class talents and then leaving the rest of the squad lagging behind. Make no mistake, this is a big shift in policy. I’m pretty certainty that most MLS markets are now established enough to cope without having huge names on the pitch. Long-term this will pay off, especially for the U.S. national team, but only if these young academy products and DPs are given the chance to play regularly.

Andy Edwards: It’s 100 percent necessary. MLS is past the point of novelty popularity grabs. Without spending Chinese Super League-type money, they’re not going to improve the very top of rosters, thus it’s roster spots 4 through 10 that need to close the gap on the three or four Designated Players from each team. Could you do that by paying mid-30-somethings 3 and 4 and $5 million per season? Sure, you could, or you could invest a fraction of that money into a promising youngster who’ll 1) produce on the field in the now, and 2) see his value increase a year or two down the road.

Matt Reed: Casual supporters may not have as great of an awareness for a player like Miguel Almiron in comparison to David Villa, but it’s shows the league is willing to put forth a better overall product by getting younger and developing more players. In the long term, I believe that’s what MLS needs in order to sustain its success. The league is always going to have its stars, particularly in the larger markets, but it’s important that clubs bring in these younger DPs in order build their rosters for 5-10 years as opposed to 2-3 years.

Nicholas Mendola: I think it’s here to stay, and a good thing. That said I do believe there is still a need for big names who can still play (Look what Frank Lampard did when healthy). My worry is the same as it is for most leagues: Getting carried away with a trend and assuming that’s “how it is now”. I remember when the Anaheim Ducks won a Stanley Cup and all of the sudden “rough and tumble fighting teams are back!”. Didn’t quite pan out that way for the long-term. That’s obviously a different scenario in so many ways — let alone the lack of knives bolted to soccer players’ feet. MLS is on its way, but it still isn’t mission accomplished. That’s another lesson the league should take from hockey.

Kyle Bonn: I love it. Not only is Major League Soccer switching from big-name but aged stars, they’re buying smart. Miguel Almiron is 23. Cristian Colman is 23. Josef Martinez is 23. These purchases will go a long way, not only to build the league over time, but to give important players time to adapt to Major League Soccer, which is always a key.

 Which conference is stronger: East or West?

JPW: I think the West is very, very strong once again. Six of the top nine teams in MLS last season were from out West but I am expecting a fightback from the Eastern Conference this season. NYC FC, Red Bulls, Toronto, Philly and even Atlanta can easily compete with the best from West.

AE: It’s still the West when a team with as much talent as the Timbers can’t crack the playoff field in 2016, when 60 percent of each conference’s teams qualified. They reloaded, the six teams ahead of them reloaded, the handful of teams behind them reloaded.

MR: The West has typically received the accolades of being the strong conference in the past, but I like the depth of the East better this season. Considering both New York clubs will be strongly in the mix once again, Toronto is easily the favorite to win the conference and then you throw in Atlanta, Montreal, D.C. and Philly.

NM: It’s dead even. I thought the East had edged in front until I tried to make the case for it on Tuesday. Bet against LA, Seattle, Dallas? No thanks.

KB: The Eastern Conference will be more competitive, but there are fewer truly great teams. The Western Conference is probably better, both with overall better teams and slightly deeper, but there’s a clear cutoff around #7, with more bad teams as well.

Looking at the two new boys in Atlanta and Minnesota, which teams is set up for initial success? And which team do you think will have more success in MLS in the future?

Source: Atlanta United

JPW: To start with, they’ve gone about things very differently. Minnesota will try to be a team first effort and Adrian Heath has gone for a mixture of players who know MLS well, others from the Loons’ NASL days and then a sprinkling of unknown foreign talent. Atlanta has gone big with its coach in Gerardo Martino and plenty of star players and promising young DPs from South America. I really like what Atlanta has done. They will be competitive this season and will only get stronger with their fantastic levels of support.

AE: From day one, I like the look of Minnesota a tad more. They haven’t got the brilliant attacking prospects that Atlanta slotted into their three DP spots, but I can look at their squad and slot guys into an actual system. To me, they’ll be the more functional of the two from the start.

MR: I personally love what Atlanta has done with its initial roster. Martino and co. have added young DPs while bringing in experienced players on both ends of the field with Kenwyne Jones, Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan, who will arrive over the summer. That’s not to say that Minnesota doesn’t have a good roster but I believe Atlanta will be better out of the gate.

NM: I’ve seen a lot of people make a case for Minnesota, but the only edge I really see is that their organization has seen the proverbial heat of battle before this season. Atlanta United looks like a team that can compete for a home playoff match, while I believe Minnesota will struggle to be in the playoff mix in Year One. I’d be thrilled to be wrong for the sake of the Loons!

KB: I think Atlanta wins in both regards. They’ve clearly had more resources to work with, which is a bit unfair, but they have bought both smart and gone big at the same time. What a first season they should be set up for. The Eastern Conference could be a total jumble, but I think they make the playoffs.

Who is your under the radar team to watch this year, a la Colorado Rapids of 2016?

JPW: Ah, this is tough. I’m going to say the Philadelphia Union. They’ve built a strong squad and I fancy Philly to upset a few people.

AE: The Vancouver Whitecaps finally have a striker, so watch out for them.

MR: I’m not saying the Chicago Fire are going to win MLS Cup but they had themselves a fantastic offseason, and the playoffs could surely be beckoning for the Eastern Conference side. Throw in Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Juninho with one of the younger rosters in MLS and this is a club that could really shock some people in 2017.

NM: Chicago is going to surprise those who haven’t paid close attention to the offseason, and I also think they did a lot of good things under Veljko Paunovic last season despite being young and woefully shallow in depth. I wouldn’t rule out Real Salt Lake, who surprised me as a playoff team last season, making a bigger statement early this season.

KB: Probably the Columbus Crew. People have them all over the map in early-season predictions, but I think they could have a decent shot at a playoff battle if their core of players that went to a Cup final just 2 years ago repeats that performance. They still need to find a proven goalscorer, but if the new signings on defense gel early, they could patch any issues up front.

Which offseason moves have excited you the most?

JPW: Fredy Montero back in MLS, this time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, seems like a great pickup. As Andy mentioned, they’ve struggled to score goals in recent seasons so I believe Montero will get plenty of service. We all know how great of a finisher he can be.

AE: Selfishly, due to proximity, it’s the changing of the guard for Sporting Kansas City. They’re a ton younger in 2017; they’ve got pace and dynamism; and Ilie Sanchez is going to be the best player you’ve never heard of as of right now.

MR: I touched on it before but Miguel Almiron is a really promising pick up in Atlanta. I think the Chicago Fire may have brought in the best player for immediate impact though, with Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw. He scored over 40 goals in two seasons with the club, and the Fire really lacked a striker last season.

NM: I’ll be interested in seeing how well Brooks Lennon does back home (on loan) at Real Salt Lake. The fact that the youngster just didn’t head out on loan with a League One or League Two side is intriguing, and his play in U-20 World Cup qualifying has been bonkers. Aside from him, I’m interested to see how Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago), Romain Alessandrini (LA Galaxy), and Chris Mavinga (Toronto) fare with their new clubs.

KB: Atlanta. For a team that started from scratch, they’ve done an incredible job getting prepared to compete immediately.

Toronto, New York City FC, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy: Which team has a better chance of winning MLS Cup?

JPW: Something just tells me that New York City FC will kick on once again this season. Yes, they will miss Frank Lampard’s goals and experience from midfield but I think Jack Harrison will take on a leading role and with David Villa around I believe they have the X-Factor. Now, Patrick Vieira just has to figure out his defense.

AE: FC Dallas amassed a squad of talent the likes of which we’ve never seen in MLS. They’ve got two legitimate starters at all 10 outfield positions, allowing them to take CONCACAF Champions League extremely seriously early on, while not squandering points in league play. When the injuries and/or fatigue sets in come summer, they’ve got the depth to not miss a beat.

MR: I’d lean more towards Toronto because they were on the verge of hoisting the cup a season ago and if Jozy Altidore can stay healthy once again, it makes it so difficult for opposing defenses to get multiple bodies around Sebastian Giovinco.

NM: Toronto or New York City. While I don’t expect TFC to truly compete for the Supporters’ Shield thanks to international team commitments, either of these teams will be a hassle in the playoffs.

KB: FC Dallas. They came close last year, but ran into the hot team. They’re the most reloaded again this season

Who gets more goals this season: Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa or Giovani dos Santos?

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

JPW: Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has been the best player the past two seasons and he will prove that once again. He and Jozy Altidore will have a lot of fun in 2017.

AE: Villa will be asked to score more than the other two — which he’s clearly capable of doing — but Giovinco’s going to push 40 goals and assists combined this year.

MR: Without Robbie Keane getting the lion’s share of the goals out in LA I’m going to go with Gio dos Santos. He’s battled injuries a bit over recent seasons but when he’s on the pitch he’s dynamic to say the least.

NM: Giovinco will edge Dos Santos thanks to the latter’s Mexican national team commitments (provided Giovinco isn’t back in Italy camp, which seems unlikely). I expect Giovinco to have wild numbers, but perhaps more on the assist side this year as he goes on a scorched-earth campaign having inexplicably been left off of the MLS MVP ballot. That could leave an opening for Villa.

KB: Great question. Giovinco has more goals/assists combined, but Villa probably leads the league again given his target-man position on that team. His goals aren’t nearly as fun though.

What percentage chance do you give the Sounders of repeating their MLS Cup victory and why?

JPW: Eh, I’m going to say 40 percent. I would go higher but it all depends on Clint Dempsey‘s fitness and also on the progression of Jordan Morris. Are we going to see a Sophomore slump from him? Then again, when Nicolas Lodeiro is around you always have a chance of winning games…

AE: I’ll never assign a single team anything above a 10 percent “chance of winning” before the season, because it’s MLS. As for the Sounders specifically, I’m going to have to see how they see best to use Clint Dempsey. I’m not sure he fits into that team right now.

MR: 60%. A healthy Clint Dempsey, a revamped Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, as well as one of the most underrated backlines and goalkeepers in MLS. This Seattle team can easily muster up another title in 2017.

NM: 20 percent. I’d give a higher number to their odds of taking the Supporters’ Shield, but the playoffs are such a crapshoot. Seattle is the odds-on favorite to come out of the West, but even then a one-game title battle is a 50-50 proposition at best (even at home).

KB: Repeating is nearly impossible, but they’re as well prepared as you can be. Having a fresh Dempsey back is huge, but their defense is pretty thin, which can cause problems.

Which manager(s) are on the hot seat should they have a slow start to the season?

JPW: There are actually quite a few. Houston’s roster looks weak so I’m not sure how long Wilmer Cabrera gets at BBVA. Also, Jeff Cassar at RSL needs a strong start after some big offseason moves. Caleb Porter may be under a little pressure too after the Timbers missed the playoffs last season. He needs a fast start.

AE: Dominic Kinnear needs some progress in San Jose, but no one is more on the hot seat than Caleb Porter. The internal expectations are a little different in Portland, and he could be gone by mid-summer if all that talent is headed for another playoffs-less season.

NM: Dominic Kinnear has been the name most often bandied about, but I’ll look at Jay Heaps in New England as the Revs have underachieved. Given the hype around Portland — which I don’t entirely get — Caleb Porter shouldn’t be too comfortable, either.

KB: Aside from the obvious teams at the bottom, I would say Caleb Porter. With Portland failing to make the playoffs last year, Porter could see trouble if they have a poor start this year. That’s not a team that should be missing the postseason twice in a row.

The team you are most looking forward to watching this season is ______ because ______

BRIDGEVIEW, IL - AUGUST 14: John Goossens #7 of Chicago Fire celebrates a goal against Orlando City FC with teammate Brandon Vincent #3 during an MLS match at Toyota Park on August 14, 2016 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire and Orlando City SC tied 2-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

JPW: Chicago Fire because I’d love to see them do well. We all know about the fanbase in Chicago. It’s about time they had an MLS team capable of challenging for trophies to get behind.

AE: Real Salt Lake, because the intriguing youngsters who’ll be counted on to assume important roles all over the field — Justen Glad at center back; Bofo Saucedo in midfield; Jordan Allen as a starting winger; Brooks Lennon as the prodigal son in any number of positions; but most notably, Albert Rusnak as the heir to Javier Morales in the no. 10 role. There are a ton of unknowns heading into the season, and there’s a million different ways 2017 could go for RSL.

MR: Minnesota because Atlanta has received the bulk of the media coverage this offseason, and the Loons have put together a pretty solid roster of their own.

NM: The expansion clubs, and that’s simply because watching these theories put into practice is thrilling (Cheap plug for my interview on the construction of Atlanta United).

KB: Probably LA Galaxy, because they have one of the most dynamic attacks. Giovanni dos Santos is a player we’re all watching grow up from a good player to a great player, and that’s always exciting to see.

Finally, share your wildest dream for this MLS in 2017…

JPW: Both Atlanta and Minnesota United become genuine playoff contenders in their debut season. It’s so tough for expansion franchises but I’d love to see both teams come in and ruffle plenty of feathers.

AE: The Chicago Fire are going to the playoffs in 2017, and I couldn’t be more excited for that franchise and its fanbase to return to relevance.

MR: It’s a league built on parity so it would have to be seeing the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup. The two bottom dwellers from a season ago wouldn’t exactly be pulling off Leicester City odds but it would make for great drama.

NM: Michael Bradley begins to follow the Wayne Rooney career hair arc and arrives with a midseason mullet (full-blown, too, not ironic). … Minnesota and Colorado stage a two-legged playoff match, both in an inch or more of snow. … Clint Dempsey leads the league in combined goals and assists per minutes played. … Columbus comes back from its super poor 2016 to win at least two trophies. … Brooks Lennon is leading the league in scoring and on the way to a Rookie of the Year when Jurgen Klopp calls him back for Liverpool preseason, sending Daniel Sturridge back as a makeweight. Sturridge then finishes in the Top Ten in goals despite only playing three months. … Vancouver wins the Cascadia Cup. … Wilmer Cabrera wins Coach of the Year in Houston, but the Dynamo go winless against Dallas.

KB: Giovinco gets a call-up to the Italian National Team. Come on. The guy deserves it, clearly.

Jamaica upset Mexico to reach 2nd straight Gold Cup final, face USMNT

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For the second straight tournament, Jamaica are headed to the final of the Gold Cup after knocking off Mexico, the side which beat them in the 2015 final, in the 2017 semifinal on Sunday.

New York Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence scored the game’s only goal in the 88th minute, making the most of Andre Blake’s man-of-the-match goalkeeping performance which spanned the entirety of 90 minutes.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Blake put forth a stellar display of goalkeeping in the game’s opening 45 minutes, facing three shots on target and denying El Tri’s attackers on each and every occasion.

The pick(s) of the litter came in the 12th minute, when the Philadelphia Union ‘keeper pulled off a stunning double-save to deny Jesus Dueñas and Erick Torres. Dueñas fired first, aided by a wicked deflection, but Blake pulled off the reflexive kick-save, followed by Torres’ powerful strike through traffic seconds later.

15 minutes later, Torres earned himself a yellow card for what was undoubtedly, unquestionably a red-card, lunging “challenge” against Damion Lowe.

[ USA 2-0 CRC: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

The second half consisted of much the same things as the first, as Blake continued his clinic in the 65th minute. Jesus Gallardo fired a free kick through the Raggae Boyz’ wall, a knuckling shot which Blake didn’t see until very late but managed the put two fists behind the ball and punch it anyway anyway.

Blake’s counterpart, Jesus Corona, joined the fun in the 78th minute. Lowe rose highest to get to Owayne Gordon’s free kick, heading it inside Corona’s right-hand post, but the Cruz Azul ‘keeper was quick to scramble across his goal and palm the ball away at full-stretch.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

Two minutes before full-time, Lawrence produced the game’s only piece of purge magic, a curling peach of a free kick from 24 yards out. Corona went one way, Lawrence went the other and Jamaica are headed to their second straight Gold Cup final.

Jamaica will take on the U.S. national team in Wednesday’s final, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

MLS: Rookie Ebobisse stars as Timbers win in Vancouver

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers, thanks to a standout performance in rookie striker Jeremy Ebobisse’s first MLS start, put to bed a six-game winless skid with a 2-1 win away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. The run of poor form stretched back to early June, and saw Caleb Porter’s side slip from contention for the Western Conference’s top spot, into the jumbled mess surrounding the playoff cut line (four teams separated by one point, either side of sixth place, coming into Sunday). Ebobisse scored the opening goal less than a quarter-hour into the game, and delivered the beautiful backheel assist to Sebastian Blanco to restore the Timbers’ lead four minutes into the second half, after watching it disappear just before halftime. The victory sees Portland leapfrog Vancouver to move into fourth place in the West, just four points off the top spot once again.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Three moments that mattered

14′ — Ebobisse touches home his first MLS goal — Sometimes you don’t really have to do much beyond simply existing in the right place. Ebobisse existed in the right place.

45′ — Jacobson heads home before halftime — Update: Portland still have issues defending set pieces.

49′ — Blanco slots past Ousted for 2-1 — No one really stepped up to deny Blanco’s marathon dribble, and Ebobisse did so much more than simply existing on this one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jeremy Ebobisse

Goalscorers: Ebobisse (14′), Jacobson (45′), Blanco (49′)

FOLLOW LIVE: Mexico vs. Jamaica — who’ll face USMNT in final?

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It’s Mexico versus Jamaica in the second semifinal of the 2017 Gold Cup on Sunday, facing off for the right to play the U.S. national team in Wednesday’s final.

When: 9 p.m. ET
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

[ LIVE: Gold Cup scoreboard ]

It’s the second time these sides have met this summer, having already played to a scoreless draw in the second game of Group C play, en route to Mexico finish top of the group, besting Jamaica by two points on the final day of the group stage.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

Hit the link above, or click here, to follow along with Sunday’s semifinal action.

Gonzalez follows heart in switch from Mexico to USMNT

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Jesse Gonzalez started in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup for Mexico, his parents’ homeland. Then last month, the 22-year-old FC Dallas goalkeeper switched his affiliation to join the United States, his home country.

Gonzalez just felt more comfortable in the red, white and blue.

“The U.S. has given me a lot. I’m grateful for what they have given me and the opportunity they have given me,” he said after joining the U.S. roster for the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Tim Howard, now 38, remains the top U.S. goalkeeper as the Americans try to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Brad Guzan, who will be 33 in September, is entrenched as the No. 2.

After that, no keepers have emerged at the top level in the next generation. Gonzalez, and fellow 20-somethings Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, Cody Cropper and Ethan Horvath all figure to compete with Guzan for the starting job in the 2019-22 World Cup cycle.

“I don’t have any doubt that he will be one of the best keepers in America,” Dallas coach Oscar Pareja said of Gonzalez after discovering the teen prospect when he was playing in a youth tournament.

Gonzalez’s parents emigrated from Mexico, and he was born in Edenton, North Carolina.

“My parents didn’t really find anything around North Carolina,” Gonzalez said. “They thought it was a lonely state, so they got out of there.”

His family moved to Houston and then on to Dallas when Gonzalez was a child. After spotting Gonzalez on a recreational team, Pareja persuaded the family to switch the keeper to the FC Dallas youth academy. He played there alongside midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who has broken into the U.S. starting lineup this year.

“They taught me how to be more responsible,” Gonzalez said. “It was almost like a job at the time, just waking up early and being on time to training.”

[ USA 2-0 CRC: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

Pareja, a Colombian national team midfielder in the early 1990s, said the 6-foot-4 Gonzalez’s long arms and quick reflexes immediately reminded him of late Colombian keeper Miguel Calero. Gonzalez debuted for Dallas’ under-16 team in September 2010 and was signed to a professional homegrown player contract in March 2013. Just more than two years later, he became the youngest keeper to start in team history: at 20 years, 89 days.

By then, Mexican team scouts had noticed Gonzalez at a showcase in Sarasota, Florida, and asked whether he had interest in playing for El Tri.

“Richard Sanchez, one of my old teammates, he was there. He talked very well about them,” Gonzalez recalled.

Gonzalez started Mexico’s first four matches at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, then had a pair of saves during penalty kicks to lift Mexico over Panama in the final. At the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, he played in Mexico’s second and third games,

The following January, Gonzalez turned down an invitation from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to attend a national team training camp in Carson, California. Instead, Gonzalez went to a Mexican Under-23 team camp ahead of the Olympics, but he was not picked for El Tri’s Rio de Janeiro roster.

Gonzalez spent a long time before deciding this spring to apply to FIFA for a change of affiliation. Because he had not played a competitive match for Mexico’s senior national team, he was allowed a one-time switch.

“Whatever you decide, you’re going to be right, because that’s going to be your heart,” Pareja recalled telling him.

“Any time a soccer player is making a choice, whether it’s club or country, it’s important that they analyze the options carefully, they seek input from people they trust, and that they come to a decision that they’re happy with,” said Gonzalez’s agent, Richard Motzkin. “That’s the process Jesse took in making his decision and, rest assured, it wasn’t done lightly or without a lot of forethought. Ultimately, Jesse was fortunate in that he had two very good choices.”

After the switch was announced, Gonzalez received text messages from surprised friends.

“They were funny,” he said without going into detail.

[ MORE: Mexico blocking out drama during deep run at Gold Cup ]

Howard is the U.S. starter as the Americans head into Wednesday’s Gold Cup championship against Mexico or Jamaica, and Hamid is the backup while Guzan settles in with Atlanta. For now, Gonzalez’s role is limited to training and pushing others on the practice field.

“We just want to see what he’s about,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.

Gonzalez is with the national team to learn. A full international debut might take a while.

“He’s not much of talker, which is good. I think young guys talk too much nowadays,” Howard said. “You’re naive in a good way and you think you know it all, and really it’s the opposite. You have it all to learn. At this age they’re using their athletic ability and their raw talent to keep their head above water, and through that process you learn. It is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation. It’s got to be everything to you. You’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices to get there.”

Gonzalez is willing to wait. He just hopes his absence from Dallas doesn’t cost him playing time in Major League Soccer.

“My backup could come in and have great games. He could stay there,” he said. “It’s difficult for me. I want to be over there, but I want to be here because this is an amazing opportunity for me.”