Carlos Bocanegra, Omar González, Ventura Alvarado, Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco, Mikey Lopez: The list goes on. Our borderless, bicultural realities are being reproduced on fútbol’s biggest stages with more frequency than ever before. That’s what makes recognizing the achievements of the mythical man who came before the rest clave. Meet Ruben Mendoza, the first Mexican American to ever play for the U.S. men’s national team.
Ruben Mendoza was born on June 2, 1931 in St. Louis, Missouri. At eight years old, his mother moved his family back to the Mexican state of Durango, where he remained until age 16. His raíces mexicanas proved to be the foundation for his eventual soccer stardom; fútbol callejero provided him with a toolkit for success. More often than not, he could be be found playing in the streets, and his passion for the beautiful game eventually translated into a run with Atlante Juniors, where he won the league championship in 1946.
Upon returning to the States, Mendoza transformed into an authoritative forward force in the St. Louis soccer sphere. In ten seasons in the St. Louis Major League, the St. Louis Municipal League, and the St. Louis Soccer League, he won six league titles and garnered a reputation for his skill up, top, and down the wing, heading accuracy, and sublime bicycle kick precision.
Mendoza took the scene by storm at a time when the U.S. Soccer Federation had substantial difficulties fielding national squads. But the Mexican-American star got a call up nonetheless, making the Olympic roster for the first time in 1952 while still in the army (he was also a member of the 1956 and 1960 teams).
He earned the first of four caps (an impressive number, given the infrequency of games during this era) two years later on April 4, 1954, in a World Cup qualifier win over Haiti in Port-au-Prince. Not only this – he scored the second goal in the 31st minute en route to the 3-0 win.
Mendoza’s second cap came in the form of a crushing defeat, when his team collapsed at the hands of Mexico 7-2 in World Cup qualifying on April 28, 1957. (This brings back memories of Mikey Lopez’s recent recollection of the U.S.’ loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship: “It was the final, but things just didn’t go our way. It was heartbreaking. It was terrible, especially those last ten minutes…especially as they sang ‘Cielito Lindo’.”)
Six weeks later, the U.S. lost to Mexico a second time, this a 3-2 loss with a Mendoza goal in the mix to help cut the deficit – his third cap. The fourth and final came two weeks after that, a 5-1 loss to Canada.
A knee injury ultimately ended Mendoza’s career as a player, but it didn’t stop his continued dedication and love of the game. He began to give back, coaching youth teams in his Lincoln Place neighborhood and even leading club squads to Illinois State Cup victories through the 1970s and into the 80s.
On October 4, 1984, he was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond our comprehension, he has since failed to gain U.S. Soccer recognition. Time to petition to give him the credit he so rightfully deserves.