Mexico squad highlights national team's long-term striker crisis
Mexico fans can be cautiously optimistic about the future when looking over the squad set to face Costa Rica (Oct. 11) and Chile (Oct. 16). Blend the 25 names in with the players left out from the previous squad in September and throw the Europe-based players from Russia 2018 -- like Hector Moreno, Hector Herrera and Javier Hernandez -- into the mix and you can make the argument that Mexico is well set for the next World Cup cycle.
But there is one glaring hole that threatens to derail some of that optimism: center-forwards.
Fewer than 10 Mexican strikers started respected first-division games anywhere in the world this past weekend. For a country with a population of 130 million, in which football is the No. 1 sport, that is an abysmal number and naturally reduces the chances of fostering competition for places in the national team.
Thankfully, Mexico has 27-year-old Raul Jimenez leading the line for Wolverhampton Wanderers and impressing. And even though Jimenez has never been a prolific goal-scorer, the move from Benfica's bench to the Premier League has been perhaps the most positive story regarding Mexicans in Europe so far this season.
Then there is "Chicharito," who has been out with glandular fever since Sept. 1. Despite altering perceptions, Hernandez remains Mexico's best striker and a living legend for the national team. It'd be unwise to write him off just yet.
But after those two names -- and let's not forget that Jimenez will be 31 and Hernandez 34 when Qatar 2022 swings around -- this squad highlights just how slim the pickings are in the center-forward role.
Angel Zaldivar and Henry Martin are the chosen ones to accompany Jimenez for the Costa Rica and Chile games, with Alan Pulido left out this time around. But if those three players really are the next in line as back-up now that Oribe Peralta is gone, it doesn't paint a positive picture for the national team.
Both Zaldivar and Martin started last Sunday's Clasico Nacional on the bench and neither has a scoring record that is particularly remarkable. Martin, 25, has a total of 11 goals in Liga MX at a rate of one every 348 minutes in his career; Zaldivar, 24, has 19 goals, scoring one every 336 minutes on average. If you take away penalties, Zaldivar's strike rate is a goal every 533 minutes in Mexico's first division.
Pulido is a different subject and the truth is that there's been very little to suggest that at 27 he can live up to the potential he showed at the start of his career with Tigres. Recently, he's made more headlines for off-the-field incidents than what he's done on it.
None of the three have done enough to deserve to be in a national team inside the world's top 20, but if one of those three is to develop into being the type of player El Tri needs, it is most likely to be Zaldivar.
The Guadalajara native's issue is obvious and serious, but if he can overcome it he can potentially step up. Zaldivar doesn't lose the ball much, is technically good, not sluggish and is intelligent in his movement and interaction with teammates. The problem? He doesn't score anywhere near the amount of goals he should.
In terms of expected goals this Liga MX season, only Mauro Boselli and Andre-Pierre Gignac have a higher number than Zaldivar's 5.51, while only the Frenchman is above the Chivas player's 0.62 goals per 90 minutes, if you exclude players with under 350 minutes this Apertura.
If Zaldivar can improve his finishing, he can become the next striker to take the mantle from Hernandez and Jimenez for whoever Mexico names as its next permanent manager.
But all the responsibility shouldn't be on Zaldivar, Martin and Pulido. Ideally, there would be a fierce competition for places up front for Mexico and there simply isn't right now. It's a systemic problem in Liga MX, in which foreign strikers are preferred to young Mexican ones.
Of the 18 players in Liga MX with four or more goals this current Apertura, four are Mexican -- Luis Montes (four goals), Zaldivar (four), Elias Hernandez (four), Peralta (five) -- and only Zaldivar fulfills the criteria of actually being a striker available for El Tri. Going back to the 2018 Clausura, of the 31 players with four goals or more, five were Mexican -- Pulido with four goals in 14 games, Hernandez four in 16, Erick Gutierrez four in 15, Martin five in 13 and Arturo Gonzalez six in 16. Of those, only Martin and Pulido are considered strikers.
There are other strikers floating around Liga MX. Erick "Cubo" Torres is starting to recover his form with Club Tijuana, Martin Barragan has been OK at Necaxa, Eduardo Herrera is back in Mexico with Santos Laguna and Monterrey's Guillermo Madrigal offers a physical and powerful option for Monterrey. But there has to be serious doubts that any of those can step out of Liga MX and onto the international stage.
All of which pours pressure onto the future generations.
The most developed by a distance of the next generation is 20-year-old Alexis Vega, who featured in his 50th Liga MX game last weekend and is playing regularly for Toluca, one of Mexico's consistently best teams. It's surprising that he hasn't got the call over the two post-Russia international dates.
Then there's a list of names including Jesus Godinez (Chivas), Paolo Yrizar (Queretaro), Rafael Duran (Tigres), Ronaldo Cisneros (Zacatepec), Eduardo Aguirre (Tampico Madero), Joao Maleck (Santos Laguna), Guillermo Martinez (Mineros) and Jose Juan Macias (Chivas) of players floating in and around first teams in Mexico's top two divisions. Moving down the age groups, Sebastian Martinez (Chivas) and Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy) have shown plenty of early potential.
But when it comes to Mexico, the question over those names isn't just about what their talent ceiling is, it's also whether they will be given the adequate game time to fulfill it. And that will be the main concern for whoever comes into the Mexican national team as coach on a full-time basis.