Between two countries: Mexicans in MLS contend with crisis back home


Oswaldo Alanís arrived in San Jose the first week of February. The Earthquakes’ most celebrated 2020 signing, girded by a dozen years of professional experience in Mexico and Spain, braced for a new beginning in the United States, less than four weeks before the start of the Major League Soccer season.

The timing could hardly have been worse.

In March, Santa Clara County emerged as California’s epicenter for a coronavirus outbreak that swiftly shuttered sports leagues across the country, MLS included. Today California has more than 75,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 10,000 in the Bay Area, though the spread has slowed in Santa Clara compared to other parts of the state.

Alanís has been confined to his new San Jose house for more than two months, stuck in a country that’s become the regrettable heart of a pandemic. And yet in circumstances like these, there’s no place he’d rather be.

“Here it is really organized,” Alanís said. “Mexico is different.”

The epidemic in Mexico lies somewhere between complete containment and raging outbreak, depending on whom you ask. The Mexican government projects confidence while preparing to reopen large segments of the economy on Monday, despite official reports of 2,409 new cases of the virus on Thursday, the largest one-day rise so far. Local officials in Mexico City have counted more than three times as many deaths in the country’s capital than the federal government publicly acknowledges, according to a New York Times report. On May 8, Spain’s El País speculated that there were between 620,000 and 730,000 coronavirus cases in Mexico — about 17 times higher than the official count, in large part due to the lowest testing rate among developed nations.

Alanís’ parents and younger sister flew from Guadalajara to San Jose to attend the Earthquakes’ season opener on Feb. 29, and they have remained in Alanís’ house ever since. That’s in part to keep Alanís company — his girlfriend remains in Mexico City — and in part for safety. Despite the higher case count, Alanís believes it’s temporarily safer for them in California, where government officials are striving for transparency and containment.

On the bright side, Alanís’ family witnessed him score a last-gasp equalizer in that game against Toronto FC. And the family is living together for the first time since Alanís was a teenager in Morelia.

“We’re enjoying the simple stuff like eating together or watching TV or talking about their past,” Alanís said. “Now we have time.”

Alanís isn’t the only Mexican player who arrived on the MLS scene in February. Alan Pulido, the Mexican league’s top goal scorer who signed with Sporting Kansas City last December, tallied two goals and an assist in leading his new team to two wins to start their 2020 campaign.

Five days after Kansas City’s 4-0 romp over the Houston Dynamo, MLS pressed pause on its season and sent its players into hibernation. The league is reportedly moving closer toward a proposal to send all 26 teams to Orlando to begin training June 1 before restarting competitive matches there on July 1. That would likely make MLS the first major professional sports league in North America to resume games.

In the meantime, Pulido has been holed up in a Kansas City apartment, maintaining daily contact with family members who remain safe in Ciudad Victoria and Monterrey. He exercises twice a day, plays FIFA video games, watches movies and cooks taquitos with homemade mole sauce alongside his wife, Ileana. They are newlyweds in a new country, living in a new apartment while they wait to move into a new house.

“The truth is for (the season) to suddenly stop and to have to stay inside all the time, it’s difficult,” Pulido said. “But what can you do? We’ve got to adapt to different situations.”

Daniel Ríos, expansion club Nashville SC’s first-ever signing in 2018, has kept a close eye on his family back in Aguascalientes, a city in central Mexico. His dad’s electronic hardware business remains at a standstill, while the school where his mother teaches kindergarten closed about a month ago. With no income heading their way, Ríos expects he’ll need to start sending them remittances in a few weeks’ time.

Between the media’s fixation on updates within the U.S. and the Mexican government’s apparent obfuscation, Ríos’ sense of developments south of the border is flimsy at best.

“Sometimes the lack of news or information maintains people’s uncertainty, especially for those of us living outside the country,” he said. “We don’t know what’s really going on there, aside from what our families tell us.”

With a severe recession looming, the darker side of Mexico’s coronavirus predicament may fall on its economic outlook. Economists surveyed by the Bank of Mexico in April forecast the country’s GDP to decline more than 7% by year’s end, potentially dragging millions into extreme poverty in Latin America’s second-largest economy.

Mexico’s recovery will prove more daunting than whatever the U.S. faces, according to Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid, a professor of economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. While the U.S. injects trillions into a stimulus effort, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador favors the opposite approach, instead choosing austerity to facilitate a more organic recovery.

“Maybe the implementation is not at the pace it should be in the U.S., but at least the main macroeconomic instruments are in place,” Moreno-Brid said. “Here we don’t have them in place.”

Still, many Mexicans feel prepared to face whatever headwinds come their way. Alanís, for his part, remembers moving to Torreón in 2012. His first six months there brought 8 p.m. curfews as rival cartels waged occasional gun battles. Then life went on.

“This is a hard thing,” Alanís said, “but for us we have lived different things that are harder.”

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