The United States Men’s National Team cannot successfully recruit every potential dual-national talent. Some players will make the decision for professional or personal reasons, which include playing time or comfort within the familiar set-up. While 19-year-old Santiago Muñoz might be outside of Gregg Berhalter’s grasp, recent comments indicate the uncommitted striker would at least be open to a discussion. In August, he made the move to Newcastle United, embarking on a long-term loan in hopes of sticking with the English Premier League club.
Muñoz was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, playing in the local Champagnat Liga, competing nationally for the Colegio San Patricio, and joining FC Dallas El Paso. His mother described “Santi Nene” as a “very naughty boy who always walked with his ball” in the house, uninterested in other toys. He was scouted by Santos Laguna while at a Sueño Alianza de Alianza de Fútbol event in the United States, embarking on a rapid rise. His performance for the Mexico U-17 national team attracted offers from other Liga MX and international sides, the rare top prospect without an agent.
“Sueño Alianza opened the doors for me to fulfill my dream of becoming a professional,” he told the Dallas News in 2019. “Since I went to the auditions in El Paso, I did tests with players my age and I knew that this could be my great opportunity. After playing in the local Sueño Alianza tournament, I was selected to attend the national one [in Los Angeles], and from there the viewers of Santos Laguna and the Mexican team noticed me.”
Despite scoring frequently for Santos’ youth sides, Muñoz’s breakthrough was delayed by forces outside of his control. He appeared on the bench in March of 2020, the last match contested before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a halt to most sporting activities. A few months later, Liga MX canceled the remainder of the Clausura schedule.
The professional debut finally came in October of 2020, appearing as a substitute against Atlético San Luis. He scored his first goal in a 1-1 draw against Club América, tying the match in the 81st minute. “I have not achieved anything,” said Muñoz after the final whistle. “This is only the beginning.”
In the second half of the season, he played in 13 matches, contributing three goals and three assists. The manager used him mostly as a substitute in the Liguilla (playoffs), during which Santos Laguna reached the final and lost to CD Cruz Azul, 2-1, on aggregate. The world took notice of the developing star, as Cercle Brugge made an offer, along with “a historical giant in Portugal” (reportedly Sporting Lisbon) and Celta Vigo circling.
In late August, Newcastle United signed him on an 18-month loan with an option-to-buy, fulfilling his openly stated desire of moving to Europe. After a delayed arrival due to “sanitary restrictions,” Muñoz has been working his way up to playing with the club’s reserve side in the Premier League 2. The adjustment to England has been difficult, as his physical attributes are not yet meeting the club’s standards. Coaches are focusing on “training and running drills” before introducing him “to the group.”
“I have to do my thing, trust [myself], and my process has been fast,” he shared with ESPN. “It is 18 months, but I’m going to enjoy it. This is a dream that I know is possible… I’m not under pressure, I have a different mentality, [and] I’m calm. I have talked to people from Newcastle, but this is not an excuse for not fighting for a place in the First Division.”
While still waiting for his first minutes at Newcastle, the conversation around his international future is heating up. Muñoz has consistently appeared with the Mexico national team program. He scored five goals at the 2019 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, winning the competition. El Tri finished runners-up at the ensuing U-17 World Cup, where the striker claimed the “Goal of the Tournament” award for his strike against Japan. Last spring, the 19-year-old was called into the U-23 team for the Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship and made three appearances, but was not brought to the Tokyo Games.
In an interview with The Striker Texas earlier this year, Muñoz “has been contacted by the United States” and would consider switching his allegiance. The striker recently told Futbol Americas that he is “not married to Mexico” and “the door is still open.” Despite those intriguing comments, El Tri is still the main focus and “his home.”
Muñoz has been described as a player who “generates football, [protects] the ball, and has a presence in the area.” The 5’10” attacker is constantly working on both sides of the game, pressing back lines and becoming available to teammates. A sublime first touch sets off tricky dribbling that allows him to charge through the midfield, make more time in the final third, and create space. As a complete striker, his goals come in manner of ways: long shots, headers, and running onto through balls. After scoring, he crosses his arms to imitate the Equis (X) symbol associated with Juarez.
Inexperience would be the main issue for Muñoz, missing almost a full year of play at a crucial stage in his development. At 19, he has a mere 19 professional matches on his résumé and has not appeared since May. The current six-month-and-growing layoff comes on the heels of the pandemic gap during 2020, which could be cause for concern if his failure to adjust to Newcastle continues. However, his obvious talent and high potential should shine through with time.
The odds of Muñoz ever appearing in a USMNT jersey are relatively low due to his history in the Mexican setup and their ongoing aggressive recruitment strategy of dual-national players. If he ever was to truly consider leaving El Tri, his current ability would place him fairly high on Gregg Berhalter’s depth chart, with the potential to take on a fairly prominent role during qualifying. International soccer can, at times, be unpredictable, shifting and changing every few months. As each window passes without a senior call-up, the Newcastle striker might become increasingly emboldened to seek other options.