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My way to Mexico

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By:David Ochoa Real Salt Lake | Mexico

This is the story of why I chose the Mexican team over the United States. But while I have your attention, I also want to talk about something deeper.
I want to talk about my experience as a Mexican American in the United States.

And I want to talk about depression.
Just so you know, my decision is nothing against the United States. Nor is it against any teammate or coach in particular, or against American football. Really. I still play soccer here, and I owe a lot of my career to the American youth system.

This is where I matured as a player and as a person. This is where I found the coach who changed my life.

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So, yeah, I want to make it very clear: I am very, very grateful to United States soccer.

At the same time, I know that I owe everyone an explanation of why I chose Mexico. But to understand it, you must first know what I’ve been through, because I’ve come a long way to get here. You have to know my hopes and my dreams.
And you have to start in Oxnard, California.

When you grow up with Mexican parents in Oxnard, you don’t really live in the United States. You are in Mexico. In church, the sermons were in Spanish. We sang Happy Birthday in Spanish, we went to eat tacos. On the street, with my friends we developed our own language, which was basically Spanglish. It was a typical Latin neighborhood. We talked nonsense, we joked around and we played a lot of soccer.

My house was also very Mexican. When my dad came home from work, he would eat his dinner and turn on the TV to watch a Mexican movie or — better yet — a Mexican league game. And if he was lucky, the one who played was Chivas. My dad loves Chivas. My grandfather also likes Chivas. We could continue like this with the entire genealogical tree of the family, because they are all Chivistas.
So naturally my dream was to play for Chivas.
That, and also playing for the Mexican team.

I think many of my dreams were shaped by my dad. He was a goalkeeper in a Sunday league, so when I was 4 years old, I also started in goal. He used to analyze goalkeepers. If we were watching a game, he would say to me: “You have to be like that guy. Look how good it is! ”. And I really wanted to be like one of them. He knew every goalkeeper on every team.

I especially wanted to be like Guillermo Ochoa, although my dad didn’t like that too much.

What happens is that Ochoa played for America, which is Chivas’ classic rival. It was funny, because my dad’s friends, who all go to America, used to buy me Ochoa T-shirts, and I would wear them. My dad went crazy to see me in that uniform. For him it was like the end of the world!
Well, when I was 14, I went to play the Dallas Cup with a local team. Thank God I did well and the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Monterrey and Chivas saw me. The Mexican team also had its scouts around.

Of course, there was no discussion. I had to choose the Chivas … if not, my family would never have spoken to me again!
When I went to live in Guadalajara to play at the Chivas academy, everyone was very proud. They bombarded me with messages on Facebook: Mijo, what pride !!!
But sadly, the reality did not live up to the dream.

It was very hard to be with the Mexican children in Chivas. I had a Mexican passport, I looked Mexican, but since I had come from the United States, I was always the gringo. To them, he was the spoiled American boy who had everything at his disposal. At every workout I was pestered with all kinds of comments about how easy my life was in Oxnard. And every time I made a mistake in a word —because my Spanish was not as good as theirs— they threw it in my face: Fucking gringo!

Well yeah, I hated it. I hated it very much. He hated always being the different one.

In the United States, I was “The Mexican.”
In Mexico it was “El gringo.”

I think they did it because I was one of the best players in the academy, and I was also in the Mexican youth team, and in the end they never saw me as Mexican. But that didn’t make it easier to accept.

I was there for eight months without a friend to talk to. And when you are 15 years old, you need friends.

You need to socialize. You want to go out and see what the city has to offer, right? And not stay in your room staring at the phone all day. That was pretty much my everyday routine.

Then the training began and there were the comments. I laughed, but deep down, they hurt. Sometimes, at night, trying to sleep, I would think: What do I have to do to show these guys that I’m just like them?

I remember being very angry. I wanted to fight them for what they told me. But over time, you almost end up believing what they say.

That was my first experience with depression. I started to hate myself, because I wanted to belong and couldn’t do it. I was making all these sacrifices to succeed as a footballer – and fulfill my dream – and yet I wasn’t happy.

I was also worried about what might happen if I didn’t make it. He hated school, so getting to college, no way. In fact, I knew that if I didn’t succeed in soccer, I was almost certainly going to be working in construction for the rest of my life, like my father did. When I was 12, my dad started taking me to work to prepare me for Real Life. It was very hard work, and I saw people around him taking drugs or getting depressed because of how brutal it was.

There I felt that I had to achieve it, because football was all I had. But at the same time, he was suffering from so many problems.

I didn’t tell my parents about the bullying. My dad would have told me to become strong, and my mom was going to feel bad for me and ask me to come home. But Chivas was my team and I also played for Mexico’s youth teams, so I felt that dreams were close to coming true. He couldn’t miss that opportunity.

Unfortunately, it never worked because some FIFA rules prevented me from playing in the basic Mexican forces as a minor. So I returned to the United States, and luckily, another door opened for me: this is how I came to the Real Salt Lake Academy.
Things worked out well from the beginning. The director of the academy was Martín Vásquez, who was also Mexican American, and his entire team spoke Spanish. In addition, the goalkeeping coach was Mexican.
Suddenly, Chivas’s bad experience was completely gone. Again I found myself loving life.
For my performances, I received a call from the Mexico Under-16 team.

I was ready to go, but Real Salt Lake needed me for a tournament on the same dates. I was very disappointed, because I felt that I had something to show those Mexican children. I wanted to show them that the gringo deserved respect. Later, Martín said that there was a concentration of the United States that did not interfere with our schedule. And I thought: Why not? It could be fun.

And it went very well for me. They even called me to another preparatory rally for the U-17 World Cup. That’s when things got complicated. I wanted to impress the coaches where I could, but ended up making silly mistakes.

Off the pitch, I didn’t feel at home either, at all. There was no one who really understood where he came from, or even who he was.

It was like reliving the entire Chivas experience.
That was the second time I felt depressed. Once again I found myself working hard without being able to see the results, and again I was anxious to know what would happen if I failed. Part of this feeling was also from not knowing exactly what was happening to me. I didn’t understand that I was depressed. I just knew that again I was hating my life.
But then I got to the U-18 and there I met a goalkeeping coach named Des McAleenan.

To be honest, the truth is that I had created a kind of fear of white coaches.

It’s sad, but it’s true. I felt like I couldn’t trust them, because they weren’t like me and they didn’t understand my style of play. But Des managed to get it off me.

It is as if God has seen me suffering and has sent him to help me.

Des was the only coach in the American system with whom I was able to create a relationship of genuine trust. He was Irish, but he had worked in Mexico, so he spoke Spanish well. He knew all the goalkeepers in the Mexican league. He was always ready to discuss the games, the stops, everything. He left whatever he had to do to talk to me. He hugged me. He understood me. He believed in me. I trusted him with all my being.

I loved the way he worked. He didn’t rely so much on technique, but rather on going all over the place and making great saves – Mexican style. In the United States, more than anything else is gym work and technique. Mexican goalkeepers are slimmer and flashier, and I wanted to be that way. Sure, sometimes they might be too flashy, but that’s why you fall in love with this, right? You want to get the ball out of the corner and hear everyone… Wow !!!
Working with Des, I became the starting goalkeeper of the U-18. I continued with the U-20 selection for the U-20 World Cup, where the coach was Tab Ramos, another person who understood me.

There were more Mexican Americans, like Alex Méndez or Ulysses Llanez. They were all just like me.

Des managed to take it off. It is as if God has seen me suffering and has sent him to help me.

– David Ochoa

And then I remember thinking: “Maybe and yes I CAN play for the United States.
But then Tab was hired by the Houston Dynamo and Des went to work with the Colombian national team.

Suddenly it was as if he had lost my guardian angel. But at the same time, he still had it. Because Des kept calling me every month. He kept watching my games. He coached players who had triumphed in the big European leagues, and he told me: “You can be better than them. Not as good as them… Better ”. I generated this inner fire. I really wanted to show him that he was right.

In December of last year, Real Salt Lake decided to change its goalkeeping coach. The club had a list of three possible replacements, and Des was one of them. I thought there was a good chance that we would work together again, but that was not what happened.
In February, I received word that Des had apparently taken his own life.
His death made me question absolutely everything. I discovered that Des had also been struggling with depression. It was quite a shock, because he seemed like the liveliest and happiest guy, always smiling, always working hard. But no one knew until it was too late.

I began to analyze my past and to recognize that, yes, I had been with depression too. It’s weird, because when you play soccer, it’s like you’re on autopilot, but suddenly two years have passed. But now he could see the symptoms well. I had been suffering, but I had not finished understanding what was happening to me.

Des passed away on February 26 of this year. He was just 53 years old. God knows I just wish I could have helped him as much as he helped me.

Thanks to Des, my career returned to where it should be, and so did my mind. Since the beginning of this year I have been playing regularly for Real Salt Lake in the MLS, what a blessing. I feel like all the hard work is finally paying off. Luckily, dark thoughts are a thing of the past too.

In May, the United States called me up for the Nations League. Mexico had been knocking on my door for a year, and deep down, it was still my dream. I still carried this anger inside after my time at Chivas.

But he also wanted to be faithful to the United States and, in a way, to Des, even though he was no longer here.

That convocation was the first since Des’s death. I think deep down I was looking for someone like him, who would understand me and work with me, and love me as he had. But I didn’t find anyone like him, and I became this quiet boy who tried to process everything that had happened. I hardly spoke to anyone at that concentration.

The final against Mexico was rare. I was on the bench, cheering on the United States, because I was part of the team. But something in my heart was telling me: Wow… these are the Mexican players you grew up watching on television. Guillermo Ochoa played. I really felt that Mexico had a place in my heart.

In the end, I was the only player who didn’t play for a single minute. I’m not saying that I should have played in the Nations League. I’m still young, and the team had two other very good goalkeepers. I also know that I made a mistake in qualifying for the Olympics. But he had done well in training, and he wanted to show what he could be capable of.
After the tournament, when we played a friendly against Costa Rica, I thought: They have to get me into this match.

We played in the Real Salt Lake stadium, in front of my fans.
There was a time when people were chanting my name for me to come in.
Besides, the game was too easy. A half. At least 15 minutes.
But it did not happen.

I’m not going to lie: I was very frustrated. I was angry. I felt that they didn’t really believe in me. So when Mexico invited me to the rally before the Gold Cup, it was like getting the green light to say yes. Tata Martino had managed Barcelona and the Argentine team – working with the best goalkeepers in the world – and now he was telling me that he believed in his potential. So I went to see what it was about.

I had doubts, I really did. He still remembered what had happened at Chivas. But I really enjoyed it very much. Nobody called me a gringo. Everyone wanted to talk, they tried to get to know me, and I’m also talking about the most recognized players. Héctor Herrera followed me on Instagram. I know it’s funny that he gives so much importance to this detail, but he really made me feel: Well, he plays for Atlético de Madrid, but he knows who I am. Guillermo Ochoa was not there, but Talavera, Cota, Orozco, all of them, yes. I had in front of the players who had been my idols since I was a child. And now they were my companions.
After three days, I knew I would make the change. I felt valued not because of the goalkeeper that I am right now, but because of the goalkeeper that I can be.

And I understood that no matter how hard I try, I will never be fully American. I’m not going to be completely Mexican either, so that’s where I feel most comfortable, and something inside me makes me feel at home with the Mexican players. They were loud and funny and sociable. They made me feel like I was with my friends in Oxnard.
They made me feel like Des was out there. At this stage, it is just how I want to feel, appreciated and at home.

After everything that has happened, I just want to be happy.
That is why I decided to choose Mexico, and I really hope you can understand that. Even if it is a personal and emotional decision, I hope it makes sense. He definitely has it for me.

At this stage, it is just how I want to feel, appreciated and at home.
– David Ochoa

By the way, I also have another dream. I would like to become a role model for Mexican American players. There are many talented youngsters who play in small towns like Oxnard, but no one seems to see them. There are more than 35 million people living in the United States who were born in Mexico or have Mexican roots, but very few play professional soccer here. It’s really weird isn’t it? There should be many more.

So I hope I can do my part to change that reality. I hope Mexican American kids can see what I’m doing and say, Wow, maybe I can do it too.

Some might watch a soccer game on TV and say, “Daddy, I want to be like that goalkeeper!
A boy from Oxnard.

A goalkeeper from Mexico.

A proud Mexican American.


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