Sunday, May 24, 2009
Wallace, Frei and Kandji consider their U.S. option
Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPN Soccernet
Mention the names of Neven Subotic and Giuseppe Rossi to some U.S. national team fans and it's likely there'll be a hostile reaction. More than that, though, is some sadness over two players who could have played for the U.S., but ended up choosing other options.
What should be realized is that as long as the United States is the melting pot that it is, with immigrants from all over the world bringing their love of soccer to these shores, there will be players with multiple national team options. Some, like Freddy Adu and Jose Torres, will choose the U.S., while others, such as Subotic (Serbia), Rossi (Italy) and Edgar Castillo (Mexico), will not.You can throw three more names into the mix. For the trio of Rodney Wallace, Stefan Frei and Macoumba Kandji, playing for the U.S. is a possibility, but each has other options. None of the three are currently American citizens, meaning each would still have to go through varying steps, and in some cases wait several years, to even be eligible for the U.S. However, all three have pondered the decision, each with their own distinct take on what might lie ahead for their national team future.Currently a rookie standout for D.C. United, Wallace is the most intriguing of the three potential U.S. prospects because of his age and position. The 20-year-old left back/left winger has established himself as one of the best rookies in MLS and one of the best young left-sided players in MLS, just the type of player the U.S. national team program could use these days.Wallace was born in Costa Rica and lived there until the age of nine. His love for the sport was already established when he made his way to the United States and settled in Maryland. In the almost dozen years since moving here he has blossomed into a top talent, with the help of the soccer development system in this country. He is fully aware of what being in America has done for him as a player, which is why he is currently undecided on which country he will ultimately play for.
"Right now I haven't made a decision and I'm not leaning either way," said Wallace. "I was born in Costa Rica and there are feelings there where I would love to play for the national team, but I've been here [in the United States] and being here is a big reason I've become the player I am now."Wallace's skill has led some within U.S. Soccer to believe that he could already be in the national team mix if he were eligible -- it's no secret that the left back position is the weakest in the national team pool.Although Wallace has been in the United States for a dozen years, he did not start the process to attain citizenship until a few years ago. Wallace has his green card, but is still a few years away from becoming a U.S. citizen.
Wallace's 21st birthday is less than a month away, but he will have more time to consider his national team options because he has never appeared for a Costa Rican youth national team. At this point, Wallace's decision is incumbent on overtures from either the United States or Costa Rica. While the United States is indeed interested -- according to sources, U.S. coach Bob Bradley has already made inquiries about him -- the U.S. must wait for him to become a citizen before he is eligible.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, does not have to wait and could call him up immediately if it wanted to. The thing is Costa Rica has yet to contact Wallace, and the longer Wallace doesn't hear from his native country the better the chances are that his adopted country will be able to step in.
Wallace isn't spending too much time thinking about the possibilities because he knows that, as of right now, matters are out of his control. He is intent on focusing on his pro career, which is off to a great start.
"It's not something I'm worrying about right now because I have my career to focus on and a season to play," Wallace said. "When somebody calls me then it's something I'll have to think about."
For Kandji, the dream of playing for the U.S. national team is further out of reach. He just was only recently granted asylum status in the U.S., but has no green card and is several years away from being granted U.S. citizenship. That hasn't stopped the New York Red Bulls striker from publicly expressing his interest in potentially playing for the United States despite being eligible for both Senegal and Gambia.
"It would be an honor to play for the U.S. and if they are interested in me I would play for them," Kandji said. "I'm not a citizen but it's the national team so if they want me I'm sure they can make it happen."
That line of thinking is commonplace but not completely accurate. Unlike some other countries, where foreign players find attaining citizenship easier, there isn't that much the U.S. Soccer Federation can do to expedite citizenship cases for foreign-born prospects.
"We monitor as many of these cases as we can, and while there's uniqueness in certain cases, there are rules that apply, FIFA and U.S. immigration laws," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "Both are pretty clear and we abide by them and are guided them. Sometimes they work to our benefit."
As for the perception that the U.S. federation can intervene, Gulati stated clearly that the days of congressional acts and special dispensation are long gone and athletes hoping to find citizenship quickly in the United States have to wait like everybody else.
"That's not the case in the United States," Gulati said of fast-tracking citizenship for athletes. "U.S. immigration law is quite clear. Naturalization is a huge privilege and it's not done on an expedited basis, whether it's sports or otherwise."
Just how long Kandji would have to wait is unclear given his unique asylum status, but citizenship isn't something that will happen anytime soon. With Senegal and Gambia courting him, Kandji isn't likely to wait too long for something to happen in the United States.
"I can't wait something like years," said Kandji, who has been in the United States for six years. "I want to play international football and if that means playing for Senegal, where my father played for the national team, or for Gambia, then I'll do that."
The player among this trio who is probably closest to citizenship is actually the one least likely to suit up for the U.S. national team. Frei is a Switzerland native and, despite having lived in the United States for seven years before being drafted by Toronto FC, his ultimate desire is to play for the Swiss national team.
"I've always considered myself Swiss and it has always been a dream of mine to represent my country," Frei said. "There maybe was a time when I was younger where I thought I might go another path to help my chances of becoming a pro, but now that I've realized that dream already I feel like Switzerland is who I can see myself playing for.
"To be honest I never felt like the United States was home for me, but more a destination in my life," Frei said. "I've never lost that connection to Switzerland, so that makes my decision easy."Frei acknowledged that while the U.S. isn't his first choice, he would consider playing for the U.S. if Switzerland failed to call him up. While Switzerland does boast a handful of quality goalkeepers in their mid-20s, including starter and Wolfsburg starter Diego Benaglio, Frei's chances of getting a call certainly look good. The 23-year-old goalie has grabbed a starting job in MLS in his rookie season and is regarded by some as the best goalkeeping prospect in the league since Tim Howard."If that were the case, and Switzerland let me know they weren't interested in me, then playing for the United States is something I'd have to think about," Frei said. "Every player wants to play internationally and I'm hoping my chance comes with Switzerland."Wallace, Kandji and Frei aren't alone among players with American ties and multiple national team possibilities. Sebastian Hines, an English-born central defender for Middlesbrough, has an American father, but is just days from his 21st birthday, at which time he will be cap-tied to England, which he has represented on the Under-17 and Under-19 national team level. Marco Vidal was born and raised in the United States but he now plays in Mexico and has the option of playing for Mexico or the United States. Vincenzo Bernardo is an American-born midfielder with Napoli who is eligible for Italy and Mikkel Diskerud is a midfielder for Norwegian club Stabaek who has an American mother and has represented both the United States and Norway on the youth international level.There have been and will continue to be prospects such as these, and the U.S. Soccer Federation must continue to do its best to make sure that the best U.S.-eligible prospects wind up following the paths of players such as Torres and Adu rather than the paths of players such as Subotic and Rossi.
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Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.