Nov. 1, 2012
By Craig Chval Sr.
When Monica Gonzalez was summoned to the office of University of Notre Dame women’s soccer head coach Randy Waldrum in the spring of her freshman year, she had no idea what awaited her.
“What am I going to get in trouble for now? What did I do wrong?” Gonzalez says with a chuckle as she recalls her reaction.
Rather than trouble, what Waldrum had in store for Gonzalez was a potential pathway to the Olympics. As an elite player who was recruited by all of the collegiate soccer powers, Gonzalez had long dreamt of playing in the Olympics, and was making steady progress in the U.S. developmental program.
But Waldrum wanted to share with her an opportunity to pursue a spot on the fledgling Mexican national team. He had received an inquiry from the Mexican delegation regarding former Irish star Monica Gerardo, and realized that Gonzalez might actually fit the bill.
“Randy asked me, `Are you Mexican? Can you get citizenship?'” Gonzalez says. Determining that she could be eligible to participate for the Mexican national team wasn’t a big deal. As it turned out, demonstrating that she was good enough to play for the team wasn’t a problem, either.
The tough part for Gonzalez was deciding whether she wanted to commit to the Mexican national team – and abandon her dream of playing for the U.S. national team.
After confirming with her parents that she could obtain Mexican citizenship, Gonzalez would fly to San Diego for a three-week training camp for potential candidates as soon as her freshman year at Notre Dame concluded.
“Only one girl could speak Spanish, and it wasn’t me,” says Gonzalez, who grew up in Texas.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play,” she says. “Once you play for another national team, you’re stuck. If I stayed patient for another three to five years, I probably would get my shot to play for the U.S. team.
“So I decided on my own that I wasn’t going to play with the U.S.,” Gonzalez says.
“And then I tore my ACL the very next day.”
As devastating as the knee injury was – Gonzalez missed her entire sophomore season – it also gave her time to weigh the opportunity to play for the Mexican team.
“I was going to be out eight months, so I didn’t have to decide what I was going to do right then,” Gonzalez says. “I said, `Let’s talk again in six months.'”
While Gonzalez was busy with the grueling rehabilitation necessary to regain her previous form, the Mexican national team was busy qualifying for the 1999 Women’s World Cup – earning its first-ever appearance in the event.
“I was still a month away from being ready to play, but that changed everything,” she says. “It sounds like a good idea now. I thought, `If you play for this team for 10 years, you can help them accomplish some great things.'” Gonzalez’s mother was enthusiastic about the idea.
“She told me, `You can finally learn your roots; you can finally learn to speak Spanish.'”
Once Gonzalez decided to join the Mexican national team, it became her cause.
“I knew then that this is my life, this is my commitment,” she says. “To take this team from nothing to being a world superpower.
“I saw enough talent that I knew even though it might take years, we’re going to make it to the top five in the world, eventually.”
Shooting for the very top was nothing new for Gonzalez.
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Gonzalez began playing soccer at such a young age that she can’t even remember when she began. Her father was a goalkeeper on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games and she had four older soccer-playing brothers.
She didn’t even know that other girls played soccer until her family moved to the Dallas area when she was 10. When she learned that girls could earn scholarships to college based upon their soccer talent, she set her sights on doing just that.
Eventually, Gonzalez took a list of top academic schools in the U.S. and a list of top women’s college soccer programs in the nation and identified schools that appeared on both lists.
“It came down to Duke and Notre Dame, and I had a hard time deciding,” Gonzalez says. “I didn’t like the cold, but my dad was kind of pushing me to Notre Dame because he loved Notre Dame’s football team.
“I wanted to go somewhere that had a good chance of beating North Carolina and winning a national championship, and Notre Dame had just done that,” says Gonzalez in reference to Notre Dame’s 1995 national championship. “And I figured the weather was a temporary thing.”
The Irish came extremely close to earning another championship during Gonzalez’s time at Notre Dame, but fell just short. As a freshman, Gonzalez was a key contributor from the forward position, helping the Irish to the 1997 national semifinals. After missing the 1998 season with her knee injury, Gonzalez and the Irish were back in the Final Four, reaching the semifinals in 1999 and the championship game in 2000.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez had moved from the front line to the back line, spearheading an Irish defense that led the nation in fewest goals against (0.39) in `00, and earning both All-America and Academic All-America honors in `01.
Upon graduating from Notre Dame with majors in management information systems and Spanish (so much for not being the only girl at camp who could speak Spanish), Gonzalez played for the Boston Breakers until the Women’s United Soccer Association folded in 2003. Still a member of the Mexican national team – which only provided its players 4,000 pesos or $300-350 per month Gonzalez scrambled to continue her playing career.
“It was three to four years of, `How am I going to play for Mexico and make a living?'” she says.
Gonzalez captained a Mexico squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2004 Olympics – the nation’s first and only Olympic appearance, before retiring in 2009.
A brief comeback in 2011 ended when Gonzalez inexplicably was left off Mexico’s Women’s World Cup roster despite winning a starting position. The disappointment dissolved two days later, however, when Gonzalez received an invitation to join ESPN’s broadcast team for the tournament.
“It completely turned my life around,” says Gonzalez of the opportunity with ESPN on the heels of her involuntary retirement as a player.
“I only had a day and a half in the gutter,” she says. “I hadn’t even told my parents yet.”
Broadcasting was an entirely new experience for Gonzalez.
“I was really nervous,” she says. “My heart was beating, my armpits were sweating. I was thinking, `I played in the Olympics – I don’t get nervous.'” Despite the nerves, Gonzalez impressed ESPN enough to earn a three-year contract. Her assignments have ranged from women’s soccer to Major League Soccer to the Little League World Series. Gonzalez thoroughly enjoys her new career, but also sees it as a platform that allows her to pursue her true passion of promoting soccer and life skills to young women.
While flying all over the globe for ESPN, Gonzalez calls Mexico City home, as in retirement she continues her quest to build the Mexican women’s national team into a world power.
“Being able to help grow soccer in that country is most important to me,” she says. “That’s why I still live in Mexico City.”
Gonzalez isn’t sure where her broadcasting career is headed, but regardless of where it may lead, she’ll still be “a guardian of the beautiful game,” as her Twitter account (@MonicaGonzo) declares.
“I’ll continue to want to be involved in the game at the ground level,” she says.
“This job gives me the freedom to do that.”
One of the ways Gonzalez is growing the game is through Gonzo Soccer (gonzosoccer.org), a soccer and leadership academy providing girls with soccer and life skills from top-flight coaches. Launched in Chicago, Gonzo Soccer now also thrives in Houston, Del Rio, Texas, and Tijuana, Mexico.
Gonzo Soccer started as a one-day clinic in Chicago, but parents and organizers begged Gonzalez to provide more.
“I became invested in them, but at the same time, these girls were giving me meaning in my life when I had just retired,” she says. “Because retiring stinks, especially when it’s not on your own terms.”
As a budding superstar broadcaster, as an ambassador for the game and as somebody making a real difference in the lives of hundreds of girls, it’s likely to be a rare occurrence for Monica Gonzalez to be doing anything not on her own terms.