Osorio gambling on European-based up-and-comers Govea, Antuna
The rise of Omar Govea could not be ignored any longer.
Govea, a former San Luis and Club America youth prospect, made the leap to Mexico-friendly FC Porto in 2015, initially on loan. With the Dragons' B squad, the midfielder proved the team's scouts right with solid midfield play and a box-to-box mentality resembling his compatriot Hector Herrera's exploits with the senior team.
Another loan, this time to Belgium, has made even casual fans turn their heads. Now playing mostly as an attacking midfielder, Govea has scored three goals for Royal Excel Mouscron of Belgium's top flight, the Jupiler Pro League. The forward step in play, coupled with Mexico's European tour this November prompted Juan Carlos Osorio to call Govea in, just one of the surprises the Colombian manager had in store for his latest squad.
Along with Uriel Antuna, Govea was far from a household name when he set off to Europe. Antuna, immediately joining FC Groningen on loan from Manchester City, after being plucked from Santos Laguna after just one Liga MX appearance. Govea had only featured in the Copa MX for Mineros de Zacatecas before departing Mexico.
Both players will have a chance to stake their claim to a roster spot for the World Cup. Antuna and Govea, who both featured for Mexico's increasingly vaunted youth national teams, remain virtual unknowns for many Mexican fans who have yet to see them in action on a regular basis.
As interesting as it will be to potentially see the two up-and-comers square off against Belgium and Poland in the coming days, Osorio drew criticism for excluding players competing at a high level back home.
Elias Hernandez, Club Leon's talented winger, and Victor Guzman, Pachuca's in-form attacker, were left off the list despite pundits tipping them for a chance of inclusion this time around. When questioned about the surprise inclusions and omissions, Osorio has proven once more he's not yet mastered the art of the soundbite.
"We're taking advantage of watching [Govea and Antuna] because they're 45 minutes away from Brussels and we can familiarize ourselves with them this way," Osorio told reporters upon arriving in Europe.
Although Osorio didn't expressly say that was the only reason why both players were called in, it certainly seemed to detract from the overall sporting merit. In all fairness, El Tri's manager has used the national team in the past as a way to scout players not usually in the mix.
For the 2017 Confederations Cup, Chivas defender Alejandro Mayorga was brought along with Club America's Edson Alvarez as "invitees", meant to only train with the squad so Osorio could gauge their overall level moving forward. The extended sessions with Mexico yielded Alvarez a spot in the Gold Cup, while Mayorga has since debuted for the Goats in Liga MX and the Copa MX, to near-universal acclaim.
Should Govea and Antuna impress Osorio, it won't be a surprise to see them called away from their European clubs in March for the final FIFA international dates before the World Cup rosters are due.
The left behind
If, however, Osorio's geography projects don't pan out, there will be an increased demand for the players he shunned this time around.
Hernandez has been lights-out for a resurgent Leon. The 29-year-old winger is having one of his best individual seasons, with six goals this season in Liga MX, adding a whopping seven assists to his overall offensive contribution.
He has been underwhelming for Mexico in past opportunities (four goals in 19 games), though he was one of El Tri's token bright spots in this year's Gold Cup. The former Morelia and Tigres player has found his stride in 2017, and could very well compete in an increasingly crowded wing area for the national team that includes Jesus Corona, Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela.
Like Hernandez, Guzman has pushed himself into the conversation with an increasingly extended positive run of form in the 2017 Apertura. The former Chivas youth product has eight goals in 15 Liga MX games this season, three scores behind current Golden Boot leader Mauro Boselli.
Mexican goalscorers, in general, have been a problem for Osorio and pretty much revery El Tri manager since the 1990s. Of the top 15 scorers in Liga MX, only three (Hernandez, Guzman and Oribe Peralta) are Mexican-born. Thus, to spurn Guzman from a chance at competing up front and potentially solving one of El Tri's most pressing problems seems shortsighted at best.
At a listed height of 5-foot-8, Guzman might not fit the physical mold of players Osorio is usually attracted to. Even then, the Pachuca player's tantalizing form will be increasingly hard to ignore if he continues to bag goals in the remainder of this tournament and the 2018 Clausura , slated to begin in January.
A magnet for criticism in his nearly two-plus years as Mexico's boss, Osorio is equally in position to once again be validated if he successfully navigates his upcoming challenge, or torn apart if El Tri lays a Chile or Germany-sized egg on the big stage once again.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.