CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Thursday, July 19, 2012
The 2012 Apertura is upon us, with kickoff coming along at the end of the week. There have been few changes among the players we cover, so there should be few surprises on paper. However, reality often trumps paper.
The cast of characters is more or less the same as last season in Mexico except for some youngsters rising in the ranks, but of those players some will bear more watching than others. One of the things that makes Mexico an exciting league to watch is that so many Americans play in pivotal roles on their teams, being regular starters or key contributors from the bench, and most of these players have similar roles with the National Team.
During the winter break I pointed out to some associates that up to half of the National Team starting lineup can consist of Mexico-based players, without bringing a huge drop-off in quality. Because of this, the Mexican league is very important to watch and keep track of, yet it remains somewhat of a mystery to most soccer circles, though the success of Herculez Gomez and the Americanization of Tijuana are doing wonders to bring more attention south of the border.
During the series of US friendlies this past May and June, some of this was on display as Gomez, Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo and Jose Francisco Torres all took the field and had varying degrees of success. Although DaMarcus Beasley was not called in for the games, there was a strong overall feeling among spectators that he would fit in well with the system that Jurgen Klinsmann is running.
That being said, let's take a look at some of the things to watch for during the upcoming Apertura.
Corona finds himself in possibly the best position to pursue stardom, given his ability and young age. He won Mexico's best rookie award in last year's Apertura. This is significant because it was not a fan vote, but a vote among the Mexican Football Federation. Corona was promising but shaky at times last season, but this year should be a consistent upwards climb for the 22-year old.
Corona will be brimming with confidence after a summer spent with the National Team that saw his first cap, and with the extra maturity that he has picked up since the closing of the Clausura, he will be one of the most watched Americans playing in Mexico. He was consistently a 60-80-minute player last season for Tijuana, but look for him to turn into a 90-minute man this season, as well as the one of the most important cogs in the Xolos offense.
Castillo is 25-years old and has played with one third of the teams in the top league, but his dip in ability that saw him shuffled around like a playing card in the past two years seems to be completely behind him now. He was locked into Santos Laguna at age 20 and was a rising star at that time, but the next few years saw him skid into the abyss. Tijuana has breathed life into the New Mexico-native, and in his 19 games with them has averaged 87 minutes per game. Castillo finally seems to be maturing into the player that he has been hyped up to be, and seeing consistent time with a loyal team will only make his stock rise.
Torres should probably be a category unique to himself, as he isn't quite a rising star but isn't quite a veteran. His importance to Pachuca is well known, but what has been most surprising to US fans and analysts is how he has quietly improved himself in the past season. It has been the case in the past where he has been easily overwhelmed unless he played in exactly the right system, but during this summer with the national team he showed that he is able to move out of Pachuca's midfield heavy formation where he has plenty of protection, and still possess and distribute the ball with the same efficacy. Could this season be a breakthrough for Torres, to go from being an important player to being the player for Pachuca? It's not crazy to think that a move to a bigger league could be in the works if this progression continues.
Nobody in Mexico has scored goals at a better rate than Gomez since he shot onto the scene with Puebla, but despite his tenacious scoring ability it has been seemingly impossible for him to find a regular job. Santos Laguna is his fourth team since 2010, and there was some offseason talk that he might be shopped around once again. However, he has remained at Santos and looks set to start the season there, hoping to pick up where he left off in the Clausura and CONCACAF Champions League, scoring at a rate of almost a goal per game.
It took some time for Gomez to get locked into the lineup under Benjamin Galindo, and he still saw a drop off in minutes towards the end of the season, but look for him to establish himself as a regular in the Apertura as Santos aims to tie up their second trophy in 2012.
Enough cannot be said about how Beasley has found the Fountain of Youth, as he saw a prolific rise from obscurity into being one of the most dangerous wingers in Mexico last season. While he didn't find the scoreboard often, his old antics were on display in almost every game, as he took more hits than a boxer and drew enough fouls in the offensive third to keep Puebla looking semi-competitive at times.
Beasley has been the victim of the rumor mill during the off season as Puebla's financial woes have made headlines, with some members of the club saying they could not afford to keep Beasley, but with others saying he was not going anywhere. Regardless of how the situation plays out, it seems that we can expect Beasley to keep running, keep being a dynamic player, and keep working his way back into the National Team conversation.
Michael Orozco at one time looked like he might be an option to shore up the central defense for the national team, but an absolutely abysmal Clausura with San Luis saw that idea go down the tubes. San Luis, led by Orozco, had one of the best defenses in Mexico in last year's Apertura, but the table was turned as they began giving away goals like a grand opening promotion. They eventually settled into a spot near the bottom of the standings, and will look to greatly improve as a team. As an individual, Orozco will try to replicate the success he had in the Apertura, before he stops getting opportunities.
Jonathan Bornstein fell into the black hole of Tigres and has barely reappeared since then, and though he was put on the transfer list this summer no moves were made. The only good thing for Bornstein is that Tigres will be playing once again in the CONCACAF Champions League, and Tigres have shown that they will play Bornstein in low-risk tournament games. It's always possible that Bornstein will be able to impress enough to get a few minutes in the league, but there seems to be very little hope at this point.
Tijuana made most of the youth headlines last season with the acquisitions of two USMNT prospects in Stevie Rodriguez and Alejandro Guido, and both could see their Tijuana debuts come this season. If this happens, they will join Corona, Castillo, and Greg Garza in the lineup to truly awaken the TijuanAmerica fanbase.
Outside of the Xolos camp, Tigres Under-20 standout Juan Ocegueda made waves earlier in the year when he chose the United States over Mexico. The highly touted left back shows a ton of promise and could be a long term answer to the age old question, but being only 19-years old on a very experienced team that is considered to be one of the best in the league does not leave much opportunity for him to break in this season. The chances may come, but they will be few and far between for now.
Greg Garza saw inconsistent minutes for Tijuana last season, and there's little reason to believe that there will be a significant change this season. He has seen enough action in this preseason though to show that he is a definite part of Antonio Mohamed's plans.
Victor Garza only saw time for Tigres last season in Copa Libertadores, and it's likely to remain the same this season. Tigres is simply too deep of a team for most people to break into.
Marco Vidal saw a role of decreasing value for Leon in last season's second division, and was not seen to be a factor for the team as they earned promotion to the top flight. He is now trying to break into the lineup for Lobos BUAP, who finished in sixth place in the second division.