Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Cade Cowell at Chivas: ‘If you do well, you’re their Ronaldo. If you do bad, they want to throw rocks at you’

In three short weeks, nearly everything changed for Cade Cowell.

The culmination came on a dreary January night in northeast Mexico, with his flowing blonde hair drenched by the pouring rain, the U.S. national team winger made history by debuting for Chivas.

It wasn’t a friendly. It wasn’t a home game in ideal circumstances with a comfortable lead to give the $4 million signing with a freshly printed Mexican passport an easy debut. It was on the road to Mexican powerhouse Tigres UANL and Chivas had just gone down 1-0. The immediate response was to introduce Cowell to change their fortunes.

Sink or swim, kid.

“It was no joke,” Cowell told The Athletic. “I came straight into the fire. I loved it.”

The scoreline didn’t change from when Cowell entered to when the ref blew the final whistle, with Tigres winning 1-0. Still, the 20-year-old Cowell earned plaudits for his cameo and it was the first small step to win over doubters.

It was also exactly the kind of moment Cowell sought with a move to Chivas from his boyhood San Jose Earthquakes, which went official on January 15.

“It’s really easy to be comfortable (in San Jose), you know?” Cowell said. “Playing in your hometown for so long, you know everyone at the club. It’s a happy place to be. You’re not uncomfortable. What I really wanted to do was be uncomfortable. When you go to the national team and play against players like (Christian) Pulisic and (Weston) McKennie, I was uncomfortable every day. It brings out the best in you. It’s something you can’t really explain or do until you’re in the situation.

“I was really excited for that — to try something new. New league, new culture, new everything.”

It’ll be like nothing Cowell has experienced yet in his young career. Chivas is a huge club and there’s always pressure. Cowell, in particular, will be under a microscope.

He is the first active U.S. national team player to feature for Chivas, who have a unique policy of only fielding Mexican players. It used to be more strict, in that any dual-national had to choose to play for Mexico. That policy has been relaxed so that dual-nationals with Mexican citizenship can feature for Chivas, but it still splits opinion among fans.


The century-old policy being questioned after Cade Cowell joined Chivas

In Cowell’s case, not only is he an active member of the USMNT, he only became a Mexican citizen a couple weeks before the transfer to Chivas. That process started more than a year ago to be eligible for the Mexican national team, a source briefed on the situation says. Cowell doesn’t speak any Spanish, really. He says his background in speaking Spanish is at “ground zero,” but he’s learning and hopes to make progress with daily Duolingo use and a private Spanish teacher. His teammates have embraced him and done their best to welcome him into the locker room. They don’t call him “Gringo” — or not to Cowell’s knowledge, at least. Some players in the squad are fluent in English, but both sides are eagerly trying to bridge the gap.

“They’ve been awesome from the start, honestly,” Cowell said. “There’s some guys who speak English. A lot of them are actually trying to speak English with me, and I’m trying to speak Spanish with them. It’s a happy medium. We don’t understand the conversations sometimes but, hey, we’re all trying.”

While Cowell’s teammates have embraced him, not all fans have. He understands it. He also says he thinks the club’s Mexicans-only policy is “special” and he’s excited to be part of the tradition.

“There’s always pros and cons with such a humongous fan base,” Cowell said. “If you do well, you’re their Cristiano Ronaldo. If you do bad, they want to throw rocks at you. I think it’s really good. For me, the only thing I can control is how hard I work every day. When I’m on the field, I give my 100%. I think they’ll see that and respect that.”

Cowell easily won over the fans in San Jose. He starred in the academy then was elevated into the first team, getting minutes in his age-16 season, then winning a bonafide key role in his age-17 season in 2021. He was one of the league’s brightest young talents, as well as a star for the U.S. youth national teams. A local boy who broke through, with a fun personality and elite athleticism to match.

Unfortunately, Cowell didn’t quite take the leap he and the club hoped for in 2023. He didn’t turn that quality into goal production, with one goal and three assists in 26 appearances. He has the talent and ability, but hasn’t unlocked that last step. He was ready for a change. Negotiations between San Jose and Bologna failed in the summer, but a deal was reached with Chivas in the winter.

Cowell was with the U.S. national team at the annual January camp when the deal was being finalized. He was authorized to depart camp, fly back to San Jose to pack his things and head to Mexico to complete the transfer. Just before he left, his family and friends came by for an intimate going-away party. This was the culmination of his young life’s work, his family’s sacrifices and the daily obsession that becoming a high-level professional athlete requires.

“It really did not hit me, even when I was on the flight back home from the national team and having a goodbye party with my family,” Cowell said. “Next thing you know, I’m on a flight to Mexico.It happened so fast, you have no time to think. I’m all settled and really enjoying myself, it’s great.”

Cowell made 114 appearances for San Jose, all but one of which coming in his teenage years (he turned 20 in October). He grew up with the Quakes and hopes to take the next step with Chivas.

“I’ve lived in the United States my whole life and been in an American culture,” Cowell said. “It’s pretty special to finally get over here and see what it’s like to be in a different culture, especially the culture I’m going to. It’s all new to me, it’s really cool. I’m so excited.”

Chivas last won a league title in 2017. They last won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2018. They had an unprecedented trophy drought at the turn of the century before a Copa MX title in 2015. The pressure never goes away, but continues to heighten with each passing season without more hardware.

It’s a challenge. It’s uncomfortable. And Cowell aims to help bring his new team to the podium once again.

“Chivas is such an attacking team, the play style suits me very well,” Cowell said. “I think I’m going to do really well here.”



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(Photo: Gonzalo Gonzalez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

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