In part 1 of this interview series, you found out about Monica’s ventures in establishing Gonzo Soccer and Leadership Academy, the importance of generous people and organizations in sustaining and growing a program, and how Gonzo Soccer players have benefited from their experiences.
In the final installment of our conversation with Monica, we learn more about her career as a footballer and how life has been following her retirement from the international and professional game. As a versatile player who helped lead the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish to three NCAA final four appearances; the 11th overall pick in the 2002 WUSA draft by the Boston Breakers; and a key player for the Mexican Women’s National Team since its inception, with World Cup and Olympic experience, and who wore the captain’s armband from 2003 to 2007, all of these experiences came to impact her life both personally and professionally.
A special thanks to Monica for taking the time to talk to AWK, and Alyse LaHue for helping to make this interview possible!
All White Kit: Your soccer career has taken you to many places around the world. Let’s start from the beginning: what did the sport mean to you while growing up and how did all of this come to be? What were some of your most memorable moments?
Monica Gonzalez: Growing up, I was just competitive and a perfectionist… I was never the best, but I always wanted to be and kept trying to work hard. I remember the day I found out that you could go to college for free with a scholarship I made that my goal, because I thought it would be the best way to thank my parents for everything they gave me growing up. I was always very inspired growing up…and every time I went to a summer camp or an ODP training or a USWNT game, it just kept that inspiration going.
Not until I got to the Boston Breakers and was forced to go to appearances, speaking engagements and community events did I realize how good it felt to be a role model and to have the power to impact others in the community. Those things are a must for the pro teams, but before that, I really didn’t care for it much. I became involved with the [Women’s Sports Foundation] because I wanted to go to a golf tournament, and while there, I listened to women like Tuti Scott and Billie Jean King speak and became motivated to use my position as a pro-athlete and a Mexican National team player to help out in the Hispanic community. These events and the camaraderie of it all has become my favorite part.
AWK: Elaborating on your versatility as a player both collegiately and internationally: at Notre Dame you started off as a forward and moved on to become a stalwart in the defence as an outside back then as a centre back. While you were mainly a sweeper for the Mexican National Team, you also played pretty much every field position for them. What went through your mind when called upon to fill these different roles? Did it have an impact on your confidence?
MG: I first got moved back to defense at Notre Dame because Randy recruited some awesome freshmen that were fast, and I felt like my position was being threatened so I moved back to defense in practice during preseason to try to make them look bad. Then I got stuck there. I really like outside back because I would just go forward unmarked and do a scissor move every time and then pass or cross.
With Mexico, I ended up playing everywhere else mostly because I got bored with center back and I was frustrated with our midfielder’s lack of initiative to score, so I tried to take matters into my own hands. I convinced Leo to put me there and in hindsight, I was mistaken. I should have just stuck to what I did best and trusted in my teammates, but everything in life that doesn’t go your way ends up being a lesson learned, right?
AWK: You were a part of the U.S. Youth developmental system before joining the Mexican National Team in 1998. How did you make the decision to switch programs? Did you receive any negative reactions for making the move?
MG: When I was first asked to play for Mexico I was really confused because I didn’t understand the rules, didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, and had only been to Cancun once, but I went to camp and gave it a shot. I actually decided not to play at first. I was in the U-21 pool and had another year to try to make it. But then I tore my ACL and was out for 8 months and during that time Mexico qualified for the WC so there was no risk of the Mexican program being cut, it was just a matter of whether I wanted to play in the World Cup in 3 months time or wait an indefinite time and maybe or maybe not ever play for the US. My goal was always to play at the highest level, and I figured I’d get a chance to learn Spanish and be a pioneer in a land where all 4 of my grandparents had lived. Plus, I remember thinking that if the culture could ever accept women in sport, that the possibilities of how big the MWNT could be in Mexico far exceeded what the WNT would EVER be in the US, simply because soccer is everything and everywhere in Mexico.
My first game was against the US, and all I remember was that I couldn’t feel my legs from my knees down… I thought my socks were too tight, but really it was just the first time in my life I was ever nervous for a game. Sure, there were many times where I felt like a traitor or where I wanted to put my hand over my heart and sing the Star Spangled Banner, but I don’t think the US lost anything by never having me. Mexico still hasn’t beaten the US, but my entire life has changed for the better by coming to Mexico. I think it can only make the US and CONCACAF better to have a stronger Mexican side, and it has become my life mission help that happen… there is so much potential here and so much room for growth. It took me a while, but I finally got to a place where I realized how lucky I am to be bi-cultural. I’ve learned to embrace what I love about each culture and each country.
AWK: In a recent article, you wrote about the disparities between men’s and women’s soccer in Mexico. What kind of improvements have you seen in the Women’s National Team program since you joined them? Can you comment on the great quarter-final finish by the Mexican U-20s in Germany? What are your thoughts on Mexico’s chances at the up-coming CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifiers?
MG: Well, there will always be disparities between the men and women, it is a business after all and until we improve the product, people simply aren’t going to want to watch it every week. Women’s tennis is at the forefront of this movement and it took them 30 years. In just 12 years, women’s soccer has come a long way in Mexico. We now have U17’s and U20’s, programs that just appeared in the past 5 years. We have a Superliga, which is a national league, but it’s open, so there are grown women playing with 15 year olds, and the coaches don’t necessarily have experience coaching females. There is still no youth system and no “ODP” system or as I like to say a “soccer highway”. What is great is that television networks follow the women…all of the U20 games and even the U17’s were on national TV, in the papers, and the “buzz” on the streets for quite a few weeks. I was happily surprised, especially because the media typically only praises the women, showing support and admiration, and I know that the day the women get to a semi-final or a final the country will go nuts and many new doors will open.
AWK: When and how did you come to the decision to retire from the international game? How was the transition into a different phase of your life?
MG: Mexico not qualifying for the 2007 WC or the 2008 Olympics really hurt my playing career. We weren’t on the world stage and when I tried to go play for the WPS I just wasn’t as sharp as I had been. So I didn’t make it the first year and began coaching in Chicago to get by. Gonzo Soccer came about and at the perfect time, because yeah, retiring is hard, and especially when it’s not by choice. But every week I got to work with the girls and put some of my leftover desires into them and when it came time to ask myself if I wanted to wake up every day and go to the gym and train on my own for another 6 months or make phone calls and go to meetings to get sponsors for Gonzo, I realized that the path life chose for me sounded a little more exciting.
Playing professionally in the WUSA was a dream come true, and I really wanted to be a part of the WPS to have a platform to do community outreach and be a part of what helped the league stabilize and grow. At the same time the lifestyle keeps you secluded from the real world, you spend all your time on the field, resting or travelling, and the downside is that I often found myself wanting for intellectual stimulation. Not making the league brought on an early retirement for me, but unexpectedly allowed me to begin Gonzo Soccer and do much of the community work and “pioneering” that I otherwise would not have had the time to do.
AWK: I honestly cannot recall reading a discussion board topic about the “hottest female footballers” that did not mention your name. How do you feel about sexuality being used as a drawing point in women’s sports? Were you ever (un)comfortable with the type of attention that you got, especially in terms of the “sexier” photos of yourself?
MG: I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking sexy photos. There is a line though, and for me crossing the line means that I wouldn’t want kids I coach (or their parents) to see the pictures. Even though we live in a patriarchal world, a woman’s beauty is a great source of power. Female athletes have an advantage in that men and women alike admire beauty and we must remember that everything is a business so if the entire world is a potential buyer, then you would be a little too conservative to not want to put that product on the market.
AWK: You have been heavily involved in both the sports and local communities, ranging from being a part of the Hispanic MLS Advisory Board and coaching the Chicago Fire Juniors, to supporting youth and women’s issues with Gonzo Soccer, the Women’s Sports Foundation, etc. What makes you interested in being a part of such organizations?
MG: I remember filling out a goal sheet when I was 12 years old at ODP camp. I said something to the effect of “I want to have an impact on the game”. I think at the time, I was thinking as a player, like inventing a move, or having the record for the most goals ever, but I remember reading that sheet several times over the years and what I wrote took on different meanings. The game of women’s soccer is like a living being…it develops, it struggles, and it experiences moments of glory. I love being a part of any and all of these organizations that take interest in growing sport. There is creativity involved and they all inspire me in their own way.
AWK: You are/were enrolled in law school. What type of law did you specialize in and what would you like to apply that experience to?
MG: Oooh, I just got lectured by my dad for not finishing law school. I went for the education…to me law school is like business but one step deeper. A law degree can help you with anything, especially in the sports world with contracts, in government with policy and international transactions. I was ambitious and thought I could squeeze in a law degree between Olympic cycles but it came down to where I had to choose between being in camp for the World Cup qualifiers 100% of the time or risk affecting my team by only being there a week before, so I chose soccer.
AWK: And finally, you recently took up a new job writing for ESPN Deportes and you are also living in Mexico now. How has your experience been so far? What does the future hold for you?
MG: I am coaching again, full time in Mexico City. I work with some English lads at a company called Sport Concepts, we partner with Coerver Coaching. I coach about 60 kids a day, boys and girls. They brought me on to grow the women’s side, so right now I’m working with 6-12 year olds. I’m on the field 5 hours a day…and for the first time in my life, I feel like I finally got where I was going…like all my playing and life experiences were as they were to prepare me for what I have to do now.