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The Soccer Star at the Center of Border Fight

Soccer prodigy Christian Lucatero could play for either the U.S. or the Mexican team. Which should he choose? It’s easy as—apple pie.

You’ve heard the expression “man without a country.”

Well, try to wrap your head around this idea: Christian Lucatero is a young man with two countries. And in my book—as well as, I suspect, the books of many Americans—that amounts to one country too many.

This story is fundamentally about a young man with choices, the kind you have when you’re really good at what you do. And what the 17-year-old native of the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Texas, is really good at is playing soccer. In fact, he is so good that word of his wizardry on the field quickly made its way to the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border, where soccer is sacred.

Currently, Lucatero is the leading scorer for the “under 18” farm club of the Houston Dynamos, where he has played for the last four years. The Dynamos represent the nation’s fourth-largest city in American Major League Soccer.

Although Lucatero isn’t yet ready to make his professional debut and instead will soon attend Oregon State to play college soccer, he has caught the attention of teams and coaches on both sides of the border. He recently traveled to Mexico, where he trained with an “under 18” club there.

And even though Mexicans are not easily impressed in this area and they’re hardwired not to praise on Americans for their skills on the soccer field, our neighbors were clearly smitten with the young man. The coaches of Mexico’s national team appear interested in talking to Lucatero about joining up. They’re stepping back at the moment in deference to his desire to go to college. But they promise they’ll keep an eye on him as he continues to improve.

Meanwhile, Lucatero is clearly glad that he went to Mexico, and that he had the opportunity to play soccer the way Mexicans play it. He also seems aware that some other Americans might not be thrilled that he did so—and for reasons that go well beyond soccer. Even though he is still a teenager and can’t yet play for the national team, and even though he only went to Mexico to train with an “under 18” club, some will panic and question his loyalty.

“I don’t feel like I switched sides,” Lucatero told the Bleacher Report. “Any opportunity to play for any national team is always great. It was an opportunity to go and experience that as a player.”

Now, he’s still eligible to play for either country. The Mexicans want to steal him. And the Americans want to keep him. It might be said that the two countries are battling for his loyalty. Coaches on both sides of the border insist that they’ll wait until he finishes college, and they promise to keep an eye on him until he graduates.

It’s enough to turn a boy’s head. What’s a lad to do in the midst of all that courting? For now, Lucatero is enjoying all the attention, no matter where it comes from. It also sounds like he’s keeping his options open.

“Sometimes it would be better to have just one country so people wouldn’t be upset about your decision of what country you want to play for,” he said. “But it’s also helpful to be able to play for both teams. If one of them doesn’t want to pick you up and the other does, it’s helpful for your career.”

I get it. This young man believes that he has twice the opportunities of many other players—in both Mexico and the United States. And he’s going to exploit those opportunities to the hilt. As strategies go, it’s not a bad one. It’s smart.

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Besides, for him, Mexico isn’t really a foreign country as much as a familiar one. It’s his love for the Mexican people, and the country’s storied national soccer team, that helped interest him in the sport in the first place, he insists. The same is true for the rest of his family.

“When we watch the games, we definitely support the Mexican national team,” Lucatero said. “Both of my parents are from there. But I like the U.S. soccer team as well, they’re on the rise. [Choosing] is kind of difficult.”

There it is. That’s my problem with this story. This should not be a difficult choice for Lucatero. Not at all. Rather, the decision of what team to play for should be a no-brainer. Because we’re not just talking about soccer teams here, but—more importantly—about countries. There is nothing wrong with having options. But, in this case, I’d feel more comfortable if the options were limited to teams on this side of the border.

Lucatero is likely quick on his feet, but he’s been slow to understand something that is much more important than soccer: the requirements of citizenship. He senses that some people would be “upset” if he chose to play for one country over another, but he doesn’t seem to understand why that is.

Allow me to explain.

First, let’s be clear about one thing. The only people likely to be upset are Americans. Mexicans might be disappointed if they couldn’t lure Lucatero away from the United States. But in all likelihood, they wouldn’t be angry. They would probably be quite understanding. After all, Lucatero is a U.S.-born American of Mexican descent—or, as some people refer to such folks, a Mexican-American. That he might prefer to play for an American soccer team and not the Mexican national team is to be expected.

Yet, speaking as one of those Americans who would be upset if the decision went the other way—and as another U.S.-born American of Mexican descent—the reason I’d be angry if Lucatero chose to play for Mexico’s national team is that such a decision would reveal this young man to be both confused and ungrateful.

Confused because anyone who would do such thing must be mixed up as to what country is really his, and where he really belongs. Ungrateful because the truth is, there is only one country on Earth that deserves his loyalty—the United States.

This story has a familiar ring. In 2012, at the Olympic games in London, U.S. Olympic medalist Leo Manzano —another Mexican-American—celebrated his silver medal in the 1500-meter final by wrapping himself in both the American flag and the Mexican one. As I wrote in a column at the time, this was neither a good look nor a good idea.

Manzano’s father had migrated from Mexico, and the Olympic athlete had lived on this side of the border since he was 4 years old. This is his country now, and he was in London to represent it on the world stage. Instead, he sent out a message that was muddled and disconcerting.

Let’s keep it real. The only reason that people like Lucatero and Manzano have these opportunities is the life that was given to him by the United States. If their parents were like most immigrants, they came here because their home country failed them and couldn’t provide enough jobs and opportunities for them to make a living and provide for their families without leaving home. That sort of neglect creates a void, and the United States stepped in and filled it.

Christian Lucatero owes his parents a personal debt he can never repay. And he owes this country all the respect and gratitude he can muster. But he owes Mexico nothing. He should remember that, because someday—maybe when he decides his next career move—it’ll be time to settle up.