A playing career can sometimes take detours, failing to follow a direct path to success. Former United States Young Player of the Year Alex Mendez is on his third professional club, having struggled to gain a foothold in Europe. The 21-year-old midfielder is finally enjoying first-team football, playing with F.C. Vizela in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Mendez was introduced to the game by a family member, competing in local leagues and treating the sport as an escape. “I was the only [left-footed player] on my team back then,” he said. “My uncle told me there was something special about [left-footed] players. I couldn’t say at the time, but as the years went by, for some reason, I felt like I saw things that some other players didn’t see.”
After a spell in the now-defunct Chivas USA academy, he joined the LA Galaxy in 2015 and led the U-19 team to the final of the Development Academy National Championship. In 2017, he began appearing with the club’s reserve team in the USL Championship, playing in 12 matches over two seasons. His first goal, a perfectly placed free kick, came in a 5-3 win over Sounders FC 2, also his last appearance with the club.
In October of 2018, Mendez signed his first professional contract with SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga after the Galaxy reportedly “stalled with their contract offer.” The club assigned him to the U-19 A-Junior squad for the second half of the season. He scored three goals in 13 total appearances. The standout performance was his brace in a 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim.
Over the summer, Mendez signed a three-year deal with Ajax amidst reported interest from Real Madrid. He was assigned to the reserve team in the Eerste Divisie. In his first year at the club, the midfielder made 22 appearances, contributing two goals and two assists. The club registered him for the Europa League but did not name him to the match day roster.
“When I first got there, I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know what to expect,” Mendez shared with American Soccer Now. “Just day by day, the whole staff and players have just made me feel welcome. It just helped me get comfortable really fast. And I think that this team is more of my style of play so I feel like I fit in right away.”
In the second year, he remained with the Jong side after training with the first team during the preseason. Mendez had one goal and four assists in 17 matches. An injury kept him on the sideline for three months, but his overall development continued at the Dutch club, particularly in dealing with “the speed of the game.”
Last summer, Mendez moved again, this time to recently promoted Portuguese Primeira Liga side FC Vizela, on a contract through June of 2024. Enjoying the first senior-team football of his career, he has established himself as a constant presence in the lineup. The Vizelenses are at 12th in the league table, looking probable to avoid relegation in the club’s first top-flight season in 36 years.
His performances in the Taça de Portugal (association cup) have helped Vizela reach the quarterfinals. In the third round, Mendez scored the match-winner against Vitória Setúbal, the somewhat fortuitous recipient of a cross that filtered through the box. In the following fixture against Estrela, he latched onto a long pass, took a perfect touch, and slotted the ball under the opposing goalkeeper’s legs. He was named Most Valuable Player for the latter match, taking the time to praise the club when accepting the award.
“When I arrived I knew I had to adapt, but this has already happened,” he told Radio Vizela. “I’m better and learning more every day… I like Portuguese football. The level is very high and the players have a lot of quality… Ajax had a different style. Here the differences aren’t too big, but there are some. I like having space to play. In Portugal, the space is limited, but I think the level is good. I came to learn every day. I try to help the best I can in any position I play.”
At the international level, Mendez is eligible to play for the United States and Mexico, a regular for the former nation but keeping his options open. He led the U-20 squad to the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, scoring eight goals, including the match-winner in the final against El Tri. His performance earned the Golden Ball and a spot on the tournament’s Best XI team. To cap off a stellar 2018, U.S. Soccer named Mendez the Young Player of the Year.
“What stands out is the bond that we had between the players and everyone,” the attacker said after winning the Golden Ball. “Everyone was so close, it was a team of brothers, including the coaching staff and everyone that was there to support. Going out to games, you always felt that love that was around… We all saw the quality within each other and I think everyone was motivated to be on the field and happy there.”
He appeared at the subsequent U-20 World Cup, registering two assists in the group stage. The team reached the quarterfinals, falling to Ecuador, 2-1. “It is difficult to get your head around the defeat, but I believe what the team did here in Poland was fantastic,” the uncommitted dual-national told Diario AS after the tournament.
Mendez is capable of lining up across the midfield and wings, primarily in attacking roles where his shooting proficiency, deadly left foot, and needle-threading passing can be on full display. He describes his style of play as similar to that of Real Madrid stalwart Guti, particularly with the ability to find teammates and “see things that others players don’t.” Coaches have described him as “world class” and a “winner” with a “great engine.” However, Ian Pallin of One Goal points to his “work rate” and lack of pressure as weaknesses, claiming that there is more to be desired on the defensive side of the game.
Mendez has made quite a few moves in his younger career, not yet reaching his initial promise and potential while searching for the right environment. The Portuguese league has a strong reputation for development, with many players experiencing success and jumping to bigger stages. If he continues to receive playing time and embrace the stability provided by Vizela, then the midfielder could continue climbing the ladder.