Were it not for Efrain Alvarez, Mexico could have potentially missed out on the FIFA Under-17 World Cup final.
Just minutes after being substituted in during the second half of the semifinal against the Netherlands, the 17-year-old LA Galaxy talent immediately made his mark with a stunning equalizer off a free-kick from distance. After finding the back of the net, the Mexican-American celebrated in Zlatan-esque fashion by placing his finger to his lips, arms outstretched towards the fans in attendance.
The goal not only put Mexico level, but also provided El Tri’s youngsters with an opportunity to defeat the Dutch in an ensuing penalty kick shootout that booked them a place in Sunday’s U-17 World Cup final against hosts Brazil (5 pm ET on FS2, Telemundo).
An opportunity at international notoriety
No player from Mexico’s U-17 national team has had more of an attacking impact in the World Cup than the Los Angeles native.
With four goals in six games, Alvarez will be heading into the final as Mexico’s leading scorer in the tournament. Needing only two to catch the Netherlands’ Sontje Hansen, a chance at winning the Golden Boot award isn’t out of the question either.
However, there’s also much more to Alvarez than just goals. The Galaxy player also has two assists from the group stage.
“He is fantastically gifted. He puts the ball right where you want it,” said teammate Santiago Muñoz earlier this month about Alvarez in an interview with FIFA.com. “And I make all the movements -- the runs in behind defenders. I’m always there to give him an outlet.”
As seen in the semifinal game against the Netherlands, Alvarez has thrived as a playmaker in a central attacking midfield role. The teenager, who was once described as the biggest talent in MLS by former LA Galaxy teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is capable of providing decisive passes that can alter the outcome of Sunday's championship match against Brazil.
Will he soon join the likes of Ronaldinho, Jadon Sancho and Carlos Vela who have all lifted the U-17 trophy?
But before that, there is one other question: Will he even start against Brazil?
More to prove
Although Mexico manager Marco “Chima” Ruiz has had no issues with regularly praising Alvarez, he also doesn’t see him as a guaranteed starter.
Due to tactical reasons that aimed for a more pragmatic approach, the talented midfielder was left off the starting XI in the group stage match against Italy and also the semifinal match against the Netherlands. While Alvarez can contribute significantly in the attack, he is not known for his defensive effort and whether Ruiz sees him as part of his XI on Sunday remains to be seen.
Also, Alvarez missed the first penalty for Mexico in the shootout against the Netherlands. Despite the fact that he gifted Mexico the opportunity to fight for a place in the final, the teenager almost ruined El Tri’s chances after attempting a cheeky panenka that was easily stopped by Dutch goalkeeper Calvin Raatsie.
Alvarez is undoubtedly a brilliant player with an immense amount of potential, and, at the risk of reading too much into just one singular moment, his audacious attempt perfectly highlighted the work that still needs to be done when it comes to his decision-making.
A promising future still awaits
All that said, there’s much to be excited about when it comes to Alvarez.
The teenager is still, well, a teenager and will have plenty of time to iron out his kinks. A potential U-17 World Cup title would do wonders for his career, and once he returns to the LA Galaxy for the 2020 MLS season, it will be fascinating to see what the kid from Southern California can achieve after an invaluable experience competing against some of the best in the world at the U-17 level.