Javier Hernandez's complicated choice between Copa America and Olympics
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez has settled into his role as the favorite son of Mexico's national team. That status stands in sharp contrast to the angst and anxiety that surrounds the El Tri futures of Carlos Vela and Giovani Dos Santos.
However, the doubt concerning Vela and Dos Santos makes Hernandez's next step a bigger and more important one than ever. While the represent two players who are currently falling short of their potential, either due to personal or injury-related issues, there are also two key competitions coming up for the Mexican national team -- three, if World Cup qualifying counts as a separate event as well. Yet there is only one Hernandez.
The striker has already committed himself to Mexico in World Cup qualifying. That's where he and other Mexico players (not Vela or Dos Santos) are preparing to take on Canada. However, with Mexico's gold-medal defense coming up in the Rio Olympics, as well as a historic opportunity for home-field advantage (given how Mexico fans come out for their team's games in the U.S.) in the Copa America, the crucial choice of which tournament Hernandez will play has more impact than ever.
That's because Hernandez is unquestionably Mexico's top striker at present. Oribe Peralta is experienced, but aging. Vela and Dos Santos clearly have issues. Raul Jimenez and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona have enormous amounts of talent, but lack consistency.
While his club team, Bayer Leverkusen, has expressed that they are willing to let Hernandez participate in whichever summer competition he chooses, it's likely they are hoping he picks the Olympics. It's a shorter tournament and can be less grueling, given that Hernandez will be competing mainly against players who are around 23 years of age. Since the competition takes place just before the Bundesliga season kicks off, it could even help deliver Hernandez back to his German squad in top scoring form.
For Hernandez and Mexico, the prestige of the Olympics is worthwhile, especially in defense of Mexico's gold medal. The forward wasn't in the squad that won gold, however, and on a personal level, it might mean a lot to him to have an Olympic moment of his own.
On the other hand, there's always a higher injury risk when a player is in full-tilt competitive games as opposed to training regularly with teammates and playing a few preseason games. There's also the fact that, Hernandez aside, Mexico has already won an Olympic gold medal.
That's what makes the Copa America such an intriguing option. Mexico has competed well in the tournament before and even reached the final, but it has never won. That alone makes it a unique target, but the tournament is also prestigious for quality of competition fielded by the South American teams that make up the majority of the tournament squads.
It's also clear that for the many Mexican-Americans in the U.S., it would be an incredibly special moment to witness El Tri competing live in the Copa America. With the tournament taking place in the U.S., it's possible for many more of them to go to the matches and cheer Mexico on to good results.
Of course, there are some Mexico fans who view the Copa America Centenario tournament as a cynical money grab, and could even avoid going to any matches featuring Mexico in the U.S. on principle. But if the crowds at Mexico national team games are anything to go by, these supporters would be a minority that are far outnumbered by enthusiastic followers.
As much as those supporters will wholeheartedly rally to Mexico's cause no matter who ends up on the final roster that plays in the Copa America, there's a special soft spot for Hernandez. He's earned that affection through his steady work and perseverance through difficult moments in his career.
People might wonder if Vela and Dos Santos will recover their motivation and form for Mexico's national team, but they are confident that Hernandez will find a way to produce wherever he goes -- if he is given the chance. He's done it regularly before. However Hernandez weighs out the pros and cons of the Olympics and Copa America into a final decision, the "good son" of El Tri has earned the right to choose what's best for him, partly because it usually translates to what's good for Mexico as well.
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.