Chivas starlet Alejandro Mayorga finds Mexico duty eye-opening
SAN ANTONIO -- All this is new to Alejandro Mayorga. The intensity of life with El Tri, the press, the travel, fans greeting the squad at the hotel and learning to cope under the microscope as part of a national team living with constant scrutiny.
The 20-year-old Chivas left-back has been with the Mexico national team since before the Confederations Cup in Russia. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio selected Mayorga and 19-year-old Club America defender Edson Alvarez to participate in training and gain experience in the national-team environment.
And now they are part of the Gold Cup squad, with Mayorga the major surprise call-up due to one significant factor: He's not played a single Liga MX game. If the defender can shake off a minor knee complaint and debut against Curacao on Sunday in San Antonio, he would become the first Mexican since Luis Perez in 1998 to feature for country before club. One of Osorio's mentors, Marcelo Bielsa -- as Argentina coach -- did something similar back in 2003 when he plucked a young midfielder named Javier Mascherano from River Plate's reserves and gave him a debut with La Albiceleste.
Speak to Mayorga about the experience he is going through and you find someone who is still raw, wide-eyed and taking in every little detail he can from a period that could help shape his career.
"I never imagined living this at my age. I've witnessed incredible things," said Mayorga, who admitted he was nervously eating dinner with the rest of the squad ahead of his interview with ESPN FC. "I had never had the opportunity to be with talents like this. I saw them as a kid as great examples and now I'm sharing the field with them."
After Mexico's Confederations Cup opener against Portugal in Kazan, Mayorga was walking out of the locker room when he saw Portugal's players exiting theirs. The youngster from the northern Mexican state of Durango caught a glimpse of Cristiano Ronaldo and, without thinking twice, asked the Real Madrid star for a selfie, bringing Mayorga headlines in the Mexican press.
In Russia, Mayorga says he was welcomed into the national team and had the support of the key figures in El Tri's squad. He formed a particularly strong bond with Porto defender Miguel Layun, whom Mayorga had looked up to partly because the two play the same position.
"[Layun] gave me a lot of advice, in all aspects; learning to calm down," Mayorga said. "It was nerve-wracking to be there with them, and he was always advising me and helping me a lot."
While Mayorga's call-up and presence in the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup squads says a lot about the potential the left-back has moving forward, it also brings Osorio's mindset into focus. Calling in someone for the Gold Cup with no Liga MX experience tells the story of Osorio digging deep into Mexico's depth chart to unearth players with very specific attributes in positions he feels need cover.
It also shows Osorio is looking for players who could contribute down the road, most likely even after Russia 2018. After all, Osorio had other left-back options this summer: He could have gone for Tigres' experienced international Jorge Torres Nilo, or opted for Chivas' title-winner Edwin Hernandez.
Instead, Osorio decided to wager on Mayorga.
"I consider myself more of a marker," Mayorga explained, "but I'm good going forward and very aggressive on the field, so I'd say it is approximately 60/40 [defense-attack]."
Osorio was impressed by Mayorga's potential at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea in May and June. The player says Osorio likes his speed, his ability to switch play and the fact he is left-footed, which is more of an issue for El Tri than most national teams. Mayorga will fill out more, but he is already strong, which is an attribute Osorio has prioritized during his time with the national team.
Mayorga actually started as a striker playing with teams in Durango, converting to a left-back when he joined Chivas in Guadalajara at age 14, reportedly because the queues to try out up front were too long.
The switch has worked out, and Mayorga chalks up his ability to adapt to life on the road in Russia and now in the United States partly to his long trajectory with the Mexican youth national teams. The Mexican federation has invested heavily in developing youth talent, despite the obvious irony that fewer young Mexicans than ever are getting opportunities in Liga MX.
"The youth national-team process is very good, we travel a lot, we have great experiences, we have a lot of tournaments as much nationally as internationally," Mayorga said, "so I think that you create a very good level of competition."
Whether Mayorga debuts Sunday or not, he knows he faces a new challenge when he returns to Guadalajara and begins his fight for a first-team spot. The player says Chivas coach Matias Almeyda has not personally called him while he has been away, but he has praised Mayorga.
"I'm here because of something," Mayorga said. "I feel like I've done something to be able to be here, so I hope to return and to look to fight for a place at the club."
We'll likely find out in coming days whether that return is as a full international or as a 20-year-old with an experience under his belt that would be the envy of youngsters everywhere.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.