My Path to Mexico

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This is going to be a story about why I’m choosing to play for the Mexican national team over the U.S. 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 U.S. It’s nothing against any teammate or any coach, or against American soccer. Honestly. I still play soccer here, and I owe so much of my career to the American youth system. 

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

So, yeah, I want to make that clear: I am very, very grateful to American soccer. 

At the same time, I know I owe it to everyone to explain why I’m choosing Mexico. But to really get it, you have to understand what I’ve been through, because it’s been a long path to get here. You have to know about my hopes and dreams.  

You have to start in Oxnard, California. 

When you grow up with Mexican parents in Oxnard, you’re not really living in the United States. You’re in Mexico. In our church, the sermons were in Spanish. We sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish, we ate in taco shops. On the streets, my friends and I developed our own kind of language, which was basically Spanglish. It was a classic Latin neighborhood, you know? We talked trash, we joked around and we played a lot of soccer. 

My home was very Mexican, too. After my dad had come home from work and eaten dinner, he would put on a Mexican movie or — even better — a Mexican league game. And if he was really lucky, Chivas would be playing. My dad loves Chivas. My grandpa supports Chivas, too. You can basically go through my entire family tree, and everyone will be a Chivista

So naturally my dream was to play for Chivas. 

That, and to play for the Mexican national team. 

David Ochoa | My Path to Mexico | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of David Ochoa

I think a lot of my dreams were shaped by my dad. He had been a goalkeeper in his Sunday league team, so when I was four, I chose that position, too. He would always analyze the goalkeepers. We’d be watching a game, and he’d tell me, “You need to be like that guy. Look how good he is!” And I really wanted to be like those guys. I knew every goalkeeper from every team. I especially wanted to be Guillermo Ochoa, although my dad didn’t like that very much.  

You see, Ochoa played for América, who are hated rivals of Chivas. It was funny, because his friends were América fans, and they would buy me Ochoa shirts that I would wear. My dad would go completely crazy. It was like the end of the world for him!! 

Anyway, when I was 14, I got to play in the Dallas Cup with a local team. Thank God I did well, and I was spotted by L.A. Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Monterrey and Chivas. The Mexican national team had scouts there, too.

Of course, there was no discussion. I had to pick Chivas, or else my family would never speak to me again!

When I went to live at the Chivas academy in Guadalajara, they were so proud of me. My Facebook was bombarded with messages. ¡Mi hijo, que orgullo!

But sadly, reality did not live up to the dream. 

It was so tough being with the Mexican kids at Chivas. I had a Mexican passport, I looked Mexican, but since I came from the U.S., I was always the gringo. I was the spoiled kid from the States who had had everything handed to him. Every training session they would harass me with these comments about how my life in Oxnard had been so easy. And every time I mispronounced a word — because my Spanish wasn’t as good as theirs — they would call me out. Pinche gringo!

So yeah, I hated that. I really hated it. I hated that I always had to be different.

In the U.S., I was “the Mexican.” 

In Mexico, I was “the Gringo.”

I think they were doing it because I was one of the best players in the academy, and I was getting called up to Mexican youth national camps, and they never saw me as being Mexican. But that did not make it any easier to accept. 

I spent eight months in Chivas without a friend to talk to. And when you’re 15, you need friends. You need to socialize. You want to go out and see what the city has to offer, right? Not stay alone in your room staring at your phone all day. But that was basically my routine. Then training would start and the comments would keep coming. I would laugh them off, but deep inside they hit me. Sometimes when I was trying to sleep, I’d be thinking, What do I have to do to show these guys I’m just like them?

I remember being so angry. I wanted to fight these kids for what they were saying. But over time, you start to almost believe in what they’re saying. 

That was my first experience with depression. 

David Ochoa | My Path to Mexico | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of David Ochoa

I began to really hate myself, because I wanted to fit in and I couldn’t. I was making all these sacrifices to make it as a soccer player — and realize my dream — and I still didn’t feel happy. I also got anxious about what would happen if I failed. I hated school, so college obviously wasn’t going to happen. In fact, I knew that if I didn’t make it in soccer, I would almost definitely have to work my whole life in construction, like my dad had done. When I was 12, he had begun taking me with him to work to prepare me for Real Life. It was such a brutal job, and I saw people around him take drugs and get depressed because of it. 

So I felt like I had to make it, that soccer was all I had. But I was just dealing with so many problems. 

I didn’t tell my parents about the bullying. My dad would just have told me to toughen up, and my mom would have felt sorry for me and told me to come home. Anyway, Chivas was my club, and I was playing for the Mexican youth national teams, so I was really close to making my dreams come true. I just couldn’t lose this opportunity. 

Sadly, it never worked out because some FIFA rules stopped me from playing in the Mexican academy league as a minor. So I returned to the States, and luckily another door opened: I joined Real Salt Lake Academy. Things actually fell really nicely into place there. The academy was run by Martín Vásquez, who was a Mexican-American as well, and his staff all spoke Spanish. The goalkeeping coach was Mexican too.  

Suddenly the Chivas stuff had gone out the window. I was enjoying life again. 

In Utah, my performances led to a call-up to a Mexican U16 camp. I was about to go, but Real Salt Lake needed me for a tournament at the same time. I was really disappointed, because I felt like I had something to prove to the Mexican kids. I wanted to show that the gringo deserved respect. But then Martín mentioned a different camp with the United States that wouldn’t conflict with our schedule. 

And I was like, Yeah ... why not? Could be fun

I did really well there. I was even called up to another camp to prepare for the U17 World Cup. But that’s when things got difficult. I was trying too hard to impress the coaches, and I ended up making silly mistakes. Off the pitch, I didn’t feel at home at all. There was nobody there who really understood where I was from, or even who I was. 

Part of me felt like it was Chivas all over again. 

That was the second time I felt depressed. Again I was working so hard without seeing results, and I got anxious about what would happen if I failed. Part of the reason was also that I didn’t actually know what was happening to me. I didn’t know that I was depressed. I just knew that I was hating my life again. 

But then I got up to the U18s, and I met a goalkeeping coach named Des McAleenan. 

David Ochoa | My Path to Mexico | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy of David Ochoa

To be honest, I had built up a fear of white coaches by then. It’s sad, but true. I felt like I couldn’t trust them, because they weren’t like me and didn’t understand my style of play. But Des took that fear out of me. 

It was like God saw that I was struggling and sent him to help me.

Des was the only coach within the U.S. system who I built a genuine relationship with. He was Irish, but he had worked at an academy in Mexico, so he spoke fluent Spanish. He knew all of the goalkeepers in the Mexican league. We would discuss the games, the saves, everything. He would go out of his way to talk to me. He would hug me. He just got me. He believed in me. I trusted him with my whole life.

I loved his way of working. It wasn’t technique-based, it was more like flying everywhere and making big saves — the Mexican way. In the U.S. it’s more about gym work and technique. Mexican goalkeepers are skinnier and flashier, and I wanted to be like that. Sure, maybe they can be too flashy sometimes, but that’s why you fall in love with it, right? You want to pick that ball out of the corner and hear everyone go Whooooaaa!! 

Working with Des, I became the locked-in No. 1 for the U.S. U18s. Then I was bumped up to the U20s for the U20 World Cup, where the head coach was Tab Ramos, another guy who understood me. There were more Mexican-Americans there, like Alex Mendez and Ulysses Llanez. These guys were just like me

Des took that fear out of me. It was like God saw that I was struggling and sent him to help me.

David Ochoa

I remember thinking, Maybe I really CAN play for the U.S.

But then Tab got hired by the Houston Dynamo, and Des left to coach for the Colombian national team. 

Suddenly I had lost my guardian angel. But in another way, I hadn’t. You see, Des kept calling me every month. He kept watching my games. He was coaching players who had made it in the big leagues in Europe, and he would tell me, “You can be better than them. Not as good as. Better.” He built up this fire in me. I just wanted to prove him right.

Then at the end of last season, Real Salt Lake decided to change their goalkeeping coach. The club drew up a three-man short list for his replacement, and Des was on it. I thought there was a good chance we would be reunited, but it didn’t work out that way.

In February, I got the news that Des had apparently taken his own life.

That news made me question absolutely everything. I found out that Des, too, had been struggling with depression. It was such a shock, because he had seemed like this happy guy, always smiling, always working hard. But nobody knew until it was too late.

Then I began to look at my own past and recognize that, yes, I had been dealing with depression, too. It’s weird, because when you’re playing soccer, you kind of go on cruise control, and then suddenly two years have passed. But now I could see the symptoms. I had been suffering, but I hadn’t fully understood what I was going through. 

Des passed away on February 26 this year. He was just 53 years old. And, honest to God, I just wish I could have helped him the way he helped me. 

David Ochoa | My Path to Mexico | The Players' Tribune
Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Image

Thanks to Des, my career has got back to where it should be, and so has my mind. Since the start of this year I have been playing regularly for Real Salt Lake in MLS, which has been a blessing. I feel like all my hard work is paying off. Thankfully, the dark thoughts belong to the past. 

Last May, the U.S. called me up for the Nations League. Mexico had been knocking on my door for a year, and deep down that was still my dream. I still had this anger inside from my time at Chivas. 

But I also wanted to stay loyal to the U.S. and, somehow, to Des, even though he was no longer there.

That was my first camp since Des had passed away. Deep down, I was looking for someone like him to understand me and work with me and really love me like he had. But I didn’t find anyone like him, and so I became this quiet kid trying to process everything that had happened. I barely spoke to anyone during that camp. 

The final against Mexico was weird. Sitting on the bench, I was obviously rooting for the U.S., because I was part of the team. But something in my heart was like, Wow ... these Mexican players are the ones I grew up watching on TV. Guillermo Ochoa was playing. I really felt that Mexico had a place in my heart. 

In the end, I became the only player in the camp not to play a single minute. I’m not saying 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’d made an error in the Olympic qualifiers. But I did really well in training, and I wanted to show what I could do. 

When we met Costa Rica after the tournament in a friendly, I was thinking, They have to give me this game

We were playing where I play home games with Real Salt Lake, in front of my own fans.

At one point, the crowd was chanting for me to come on. 

The game was easy for us, too. One half. Even just 15 minutes.

But it never happened. 

I’m not gonna lie about it: I was frustrated. I was angry. I felt like they didn’t really believe in me. So when Mexico invited me to a training camp before the Gold Cup, I felt like I had been given the green light to say yes. Tata Martino had coached Barcelona and Argentina — he had been working with the best goalkeepers in the world — and now he was saying that he believed in my potential. So I went just to train and check things out. 

I had doubts, I really did. I still remembered what had happened at Chivas. But I enjoyed the Mexico camp so much. Nobody was calling me gringo. They were all talking to me, trying to get to know me, and I’m talking about the big guys as well. Héctor Herrera followed me back on Instagram. I know it’s funny how much I look into that, but it really makes me feel like, O.K., this guy is at Atlético Madrid, but he knows who I am. Guillermo Ochoa wasn’t there, but Talavera, Cota, Orozco, they all were. The players who had been my heroes when I was a kid were right in front of me. They were my teammates. 

After three days, I knew I was making the switch. I felt appreciated not just for the goalkeeper I am right now, but for the goalkeeper I can be, you know?

David Ochoa | My Path to Mexico | The Players' Tribune
Michael Janosz/ISI Photos/Getty Images

And I realized that, no matter how much I try, I will never be fully American. Nor will I ever be fully Mexican, so it’s about where I feel more comfortable, and something inside me feels more at home with the Mexican players. They are loud and fun and outgoing. They make me feel like I’m with my friends from Oxnard. 

They even make me feel like I did when Des was around. And at this stage, that’s what I want to feel. I want to feel loved, and at home. 

Basically, after all that’s happened, I just want to be happy.

So that’s why I’m choosing Mexico, and I really hope you understand. Even though it’s a personal, emotional decision, I hope it makes sense. It definitely does to me. 

I want to feel loved, and at home. 

David Ochoa

I have another dream, by the way. I want to become a role model for Mexican-American players. There are so many talented kids playing soccer in little cities like Oxnard, but nobody seems to see them. There are more than 35 million people living in the U.S. who were either born in Mexico or have Mexican origins, but hardly any of them are playing soccer professionally here. It’s really weird, right? There should be many more. 

So I hope I can play a part in changing that. I hope that Mexican-American kids can see what I’m doing and think, Wow, maybe I can do that, too.

Maybe some will even watch soccer on TV and say, “Dad, I want to be that guy!”

A kid from Oxnard. 

A goalkeeper for Mexico. 

A proud Mexican-American. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support for people in distress.

If you or anyone you know is ever in need, their number is 1-800-273-8255.