CARSON, Calif. – Robbie Keane sees a bit of himself in Raul Mendiola.
On the surface, the man from Tallaght, Ireland couldn’t be more different than the diminutive young Mexican-American from Ciudad Juarez: Keane is an accomplished international and footballing legend while Mendiola’s career is in its infancy.
But once you watch the pair on the field, you can see the similarities.
|Inside Raul Mendiola's Tattoos|
|"I love my family, and they've always been there for me. I'd do anything for them because they've always been there for me throughout my ups and downs."|
Both players shine in the striker position despite being chastised early on in their careers for their lack of size. The two attackers can dictate the attack and routinely create chances for themselves and others.
“He’s a player that people like to watch,” Keane says of Mendiola. “He’s the type of player that people like to watch because he can link up play and make things happen.”
Once Keane caught a glance of the youngster from San Bernardino on the field, he saw the resemblances. The Galaxy captain even went as far as to request that Mendiola’s locker be placed alongside his own so that he could speak to him on a daily basis once Mendiola joined LA back in 2012. Now that the Galaxy’s newest Homegrown Player has been loaned to LA Galaxy II and his locker has been moved down the StubHub Center hallways, he’ll be looking to follow in Keane’s footsteps by leading his own Galaxy club.
|"I got a rose and her name because who doesn't love their mom. I dedicate everything to her and all that she did for me and my family."|
With three starts under his belt for Los Dos and more on the way, the youngster sees a blueprint for success in Keane’s game.
“He’s an amazing guy off the field and very talented on the field. I learned a lot from him by just watching him,” said Mendiola. “He’s so smart on the field and when I watch him, I think that I hope that I can be as big as him one day.”
And the most important lesson that Keane taught the Galaxy wunderkind?
Play smarter, not harder.
“I try to make the team better even though I’m not the biggest guy. I do have a responsibility here and I try not to take it for granted,” said Mendiola. “Each moment I think that I have to use my smarts to get past bigger players since I don’t grow a lot of muscle.”
Such mature words may seem out of place coming from a 19-year-old, but for Mendiola, that perspective was gained one step at a time.
Born in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mendiola’s life changed at the age of eight when his mother Claudia separated from his father and opted to move the family away from the border to San Bernardino.
The Inland Empire offered a fresh start for Claudia and her three children (Michelle, Raul and Jonathan) in the wake of the separation, but also its own set of challenges.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 34.6 percent of San Bernardino’s residents live below the poverty level, which is the second highest mark in the United States for a population of 200,000 or more.
|"I love San Bernadino; I don't care how bad it is. It's my home town, and I love to go back. I'm never going to forget where I came from."|
Although Claudia did all that she could to shield her children from the dangers of the inner-city, at times, it was impossible.
“I remember one time there was this really bad shooting near our house that my brother, my mom and I experienced. I was still young, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Mendiola. “My mom just did whatever she could to take care of us, she knew it was a bad place but she knew that we had to stick through it. We didn’t have the money to leave, but she did what she could and she took pride in everything that we had.”
To keep her eldest son away from the temptations offered by gangs and petty crime, Claudia helped Raul find his passion in the game of soccer. A game that Mendiola fell in love with after watching matches alongside his late uncle, Humberto.
The beautiful game provided an escape for Mendiola, who excelled with local youth teams and eventually drew the attention of the Temecula-based club Arsenal FC.
It was there that Mendiola’s game was refined as the young playmaker dominated opponents despite his small stature. At Arsenal, Mendiola would go on to make U.S. Soccer history by winning consecutive U.S. Development Academy U15/16 Player of the Year awards in 2010 and 2011.
That success turned the heads of clubs across the border as Mendiola returned to Mexico to join the youth system of Liga MX club CF Pachuca. Mexico ultimately did not provide the right fit for Mendiola who opted to return to the United States before setting upon a whirlwind journey that took him to trials at Manchester City and Sevilla.
Although Mendiola’s trips abroad drew attention from fans on both sides of the border, Raul knew where his future lied.
“I just wanted to be back in Southern California because it felt like home, so I had no doubt in my mind that this is where I wanted to be,” said Mendiola. “California is my home, and it was where I always wanted to stay.”
|His Guardian Angel|
|"It protects me wherever I'm at."|
Ahead of the 2011-2012 USSDA season, Mendiola joined the LA Galaxy Academy and quickly rose through the ranks not only becoming a star with the club’s youth teams but also earning minutes with the team’s reserve side, in addition to training with the first team.
Despite success on the field, it was Mendiola’s demeanor that concerned the Galaxy—one Academy coach even went as far as to claim that Mendiola refused to speak to him throughout his first campaign— and ahead of the 2013 season, Raul found himself back with the Under-18’s while another young talent Paul Arriola took his place training with the first team.
With his Galaxy youth career hanging in the balance last August, Mendiola’s path changed once more as he opted to move away from his beloved San Bernardino to the home of Galaxy assistant athletic trainer Kurt Andrews and his wife Kristen.
Andrews was well aware of the negative stereotypes that follow people from “the Dino,” but admitted that he didn’t let it cloud his thinking.
“I’ve been kind of a mentor for him. He hasn’t been taught certain things that you learn at an age with the circumstances that he had been through,” said Andrews. “It’s been a learning process and going through school, teaching him about debts and simple things that we take for granted, but he hadn’t been taught in life.
“No one wanted to help him out a little bit, so I figured that it was no problem with me,” added Andrews. “We know that people like him that are given an opportunity can succeed. He is a good kid, and I’m glad Kristen and I did this for him, and I know that he cherishes the
opportunity with the Galaxy and also with us.”
That change of scenery proved all the difference for Mendiola who soon saw himself return to the first team fold during the 2013 season and ultimately, earn a Homegrown Player contract with the Galaxy in February.
Although swapping his family home in the Inland Empire for Orange County was met with some resistance from his mother, she understands that leaving home worked out for the best for her son.
|His Uncle Humberto|
|"My first tattoo. My uncle never got to watch me play, but when I was growing up, we'd wake up and watch the 2002 World Cup together. He's a big part of my family and he's always in my heart."|
“He wanted to move because he wanted to be independent and he has matured a great deal,” Claudia Mendiola told LAGalaxy.com. “We’re proud of his sacrifices that he’s made to get where he needs to go.”
And that maturation that she speaks of? It’s no secret to any member of the Galaxy.
Said Galaxy stalwart Landon Donovan who is another product of the Inland Empire, “Him and I come from the same ‘hood’ as he would say. When he first came in, he was a just a little punk who was excited running around and very raw. He’s turned into a player that understands how the game is played. It’s been fun to watch him grow and develop.”
Now that he has developed into a viable prospect, he’ll look to grow even further under the watchful eye of LA Galaxy II head coach Curt Onalfo, who expects Mendiola to blossom into one of the team’s top contributors in year one of the USL PRO club.
“It’s actually been a real joy to watch him grow significantly as a player and a person. He’s been training with us for more than two years and in that time, he’s understood what it takes to be a pro,” said Onalfo. “I feel that he wants to put the team on his shoulders and be a key player for our team. He’s going to have a big role and this will be his platform to grow to his career so that he can not only play with the Galaxy II, but the Galaxy as well.”
Even as he looks to follow in Keane’s footsteps by leading Galaxy II and, possibly, one day, the LA first team, the fearless yet humble Mendiola can’t help but take a moment just to soak it all in as he steels himself for the future.
“The LA Galaxy is home to me. This is my home,” he says. “I’ve come a long way to get this point, but I know that it is just the beginning of a long journey. I’m not going to stop working, though, I’m just going to keep growing.”