Could this be a breakout year for academy kids? Pachuca, Chivas point the way

Tuzos - with eight U-23 players contributing – sit atop Liga MX table after five matches

Yael Padilla, then 17, scored three goals last season with Chivas and was among the top rookies in Liga MX.
Yael Padilla, then 17, scored three goals last season with Chivas and was among the top rookies in Liga MX. / ULISES RUIZ/GettyImages
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Pachuca coach Guillermo Almada and Chivas coach Fernando Gago are earning praise for their reliance on young players.

Almada gave time to eight U-23 players when the Tuzos defeated León 3-2 in a Liga MX game Wednesday night. Gago utilized six U-23 players in Guadalajara’s Concacaf Champions League match against Canada’s Forge FC, a 3-1 win for “El Rebaño Sagrado,” also Wednesday night.

One aspect of this narrative being highlighted is that neither coach is Mexican. In other words, Almada (an Uruguayan) and Gago (an Argentine) are showing considerable confidence in Mexican youngsters who often lack playing time in Liga MX due to over-reliance on foreigners.

To wit, 157 foreign players (out of 530 or so on club rosters) have been registered with Liga MX HQ for the Clausura 2024, and pundits often criticize the preference teams display for foreigners over youngsters.

The argument is fueled by the fact that El Tri has enjoyed global success at the youth level yet few medal-winners have become stars. For instance, only three of the 21 members of Mexico’s 2011 U-17 World Cup champions are Liga MX regulars – Antonio Briseño (Chivas), Arturo González (Monterrey), Kevin Escamilla (Querétaro).

Liga MX rules allow nine foreign players per team though only seven can be on the field at the same time. Thus, as few as four Mexicans might be on the pitch at any one time and, more often than not, that means they’ll be proven veterans, not up-and-coming youngsters.

The average age of Liga MX rosters is indicative of this. Last season, FC Juárez featured the oldest roster with an average age of 28.8, while Pachuca boasted the youngest, at 24.8. UNAM – a club with a reputation for relying on academy players – had the fourth-oldest roster in Liga MX – 27.3.

The Record sports daily calculated that the three Liga MX champions prior to last year were veteran-laden rosters (Atlas - AP21, Atlas - CL22, Pachuca - AP22) while the Clausura 2023 champion Tigres can best be described as grizzled warriors. To wit: Tigres stars in the CL23 include André-Pierre Gignac, 37, Nahuel Guzmán, 38, Guido Pizarro, 33, Rafa Caioca, 34, and Diego Reyes, 31, and holders América featured Luis Fuentes, 37, Miguel Layún, 35, Jona dos Santos, 33, and Henry Martín, 31.

The underlying concern is that young players are not being developed, negatively impacting the national team. (Some would argue that Gerardo Martino contributed to this by fielding an aging team at the 2022 World Cup, ignoring youngsters such as Santiago Giménez, Fernando Beltrán and Carlos Acevedo).

There was a glint of hope last season as Liga MX coaches handed out debuts at a significant pace in the early stages of the Apertura 2023 – 22 debuts were handed out through the first 4 matchdays last season. In that span, Yael Padilla sparked Guadalajara to a pair of wins while scoring in each of his first two matches, Almada handed out four debuts to Tuzos academy products, .

But down the stretch as the playoff race tightened, coaches hesitated to send the young guns onto the pitch. Teens that showed so much promise – Padilla, 17 (Chivas), Elías Montiel, 17 (Pachuca), Heriberto Jurado, 18 (Necaxa) to name a few, seldom did more than warm up on the sidelines.

Five weeks into the Clausura 2024, Padilla and Montiel find themselves no farther up the depth chart (Padilla was one of the six youngsters who saw action in the Forge FC CCL match, coming on in minute 67), but some clubs are turning to their Kiddie Corps with acceptable results.

In addition to Almada and Gago (the 37-year-old coach gave 15-year-old Gael García a Liga MX debut on Matchday 1 and García also played in Canada this week), Atlas manager Beñat San José has shown confidence in Víctor Ríos, 19, Israel Larios, 20, and Jorge Rodríguez, 20.

🐐 ¡GAEL GARCÍA DEBUTA EN EL PRIMER EQUIPO! 🇫🇷 🙌🏻 HOY INICIA TU HISTORIA CON EL MÁS QUERIDO DE MÉXICO

Posted by Chivas on Saturday, January 13, 2024

Querétaro, FC Juárez and Mazatlán FC have tapped academy products but that is due more to those clubs' shallow pockets, a fate that is not necessarily conducive to developing young talent.

With Pachuca in first place and playing exciting, attacking football, might that influence some owners to consider emphasizing player development as a pipeline to its own first-team roster?

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If the generation born in Mexico since 2000 can find a foothold in Liga MX this year, even rising through the farm system of youth leagues and Ascenso MX, the aging Team Mexico regulars might not be able to claim rights to a roster spot for 2026 World Cup Opening Night at Estadio Azteca.