Success at a young age in domestic club soccer, a bronze medal in the latest Summer Olympics — surely a move abroad would be the natural next step for many of Mexico’s up-and-coming stars, right?
That was the initial line of thinking earlier this year.
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After El Tri stood at the podium as Olympic medalists, several talents appeared to be on the radar of countless European clubs. With rumors and reports pouring in about foreign teams keeping tabs on them, it seemed as though it was only a matter of time before Mexico’s new generation would make names for themselves elsewhere.
Since then, only one player from that group (Johan Vasquez to Serie A’s Genoa) has moved to Europe. The main reason? In recent weeks and days, the winter transfer window has further solidified the fact that Liga MX’s transfer market remains a uniquely insular one that can hold onto most of the country’s brightest youngsters.
In December, Tigres announced the signing of 24-year-old Sebastian Cordova from Club America. 23-year-old defender Jesus Angulo, who lifted the 2021 Apertura title with Atlas, also made the switch to Tigres before the end of the month.
Elsewhere this winter, 23-year-old Roberto Alvarado left Cruz Azul for Chivas, 24-year-old Uriel Antuna heading in the other direction, and a reported swap deal that is in the works for Monterrey’s 24-year-old Carlos Rodriguez and Cruz Azul’s 26-year-old Luis Romo.
All of these bronze medal-winners are household names in the Mexican soccer world. In their Liga MX clubs, they’ve stepped up as key figures over the last few years, and at this point in their early-to-mid 20s, a transfer to Europe was already expected to have happened.
Instead, a lateral move in Liga MX followed.
A willingness for Mexican clubs to pay more for young stars is often pointed out as a main factor for these decisions. While they might be a risk for a team abroad, at home, they are proven commodities in domestic soccer. For big-investing clubs like Tigres, they might not think twice about spending a reported fee of $8 million for an up-and-comer such as Angulo.
And once those teams spend that kind of money, they’ll likely want a return on their investment. For example, according to ESPN Deportes, that seems to have been one of the reasons why Chivas reportedly turned down a loan deal with an option to buy from English side Middlesbrough for Antuna in 2021, despite Antuna’s supposed desire to return to Europe.
All that said, what isn’t discussed enough is how decisions like these help maintain the strength and depth of the rosters from the top teams in Mexico. In the CONCACAF Champions League, it’s no surprise that Liga MX teams have won 13 consecutive tournaments — a record that stretches back to 16 consecutive seasons when including the “Champions’ Cup” era.
It’s also easy to forget that in February, Tigres finished as finalists in the latest Club World Cup after narrowly losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the championship game. In the previous edition of the Club World Cup in 2019, Monterrey finished third in the competition after arguably outplaying Liverpool in their 2-1 semifinal defeat.
Nonetheless, whether this benefits the Mexican national team or not is the big complaint from many fans and supporters. While it’s impressive to see El Tri‘s top names take charge in Liga MX, the CCL and the Club World Cup, it doesn’t amount to the same experience gained through higher competition soccer abroad.
Proof of this could be seen in 2021. In a year in which Mexico failed to defeat the United States and Canada in World Cup qualifying matches — and lost to the U.S. in a Gold Cup final and Nations League final — Mexico now has a general sense of stagnation as they head into 2022.
As for their Canadian and American rivals that are sitting above them in the Octagonal table, they are undoubtedly on the rise with young European-based players of their own spearheading the process. Thanks in part to Major League Soccer turning into a “selling league,” a growing list of dynamic and exciting talents have gone abroad for both those squads. USMNT youngsters like Gianluca Busio (Venezia) and Brenden Aaronson (FC Salzburg) are notable young MLS players who have made the transition. More are expected to follow in the near future.
Meanwhile in Liga MX, the league has gone down the usual path of holding onto promising talent.
In a way, this could be seen as good news for a league that will want to continue making a splash in upcoming tournaments like the CCL and the soon-to-be expanded 2023 Leagues Cup. If the reformatted Leagues Cup is a success and Liga MX clubs dominate the competition in the same manner as the CCL, it could prove to be an intriguing selling point for the league as more attention is brought to North American soccer before the 2026 World Cup.
Liga MX’s elite and noteworthy clubs will remain strong for the time being, and they’ll maintain their high-profile domestic transfers, the question is whether it comes at a cost to the Mexican national team. And most importantly, will this ongoing process stunt the growth of players who are capable of thriving in Europe?