When 19-year-old Roberto Alvarado signed for Cruz Azul from Necaxa last May, the general coverage surrounding the transfer gravitated towards the Irapuato native being brought in to help the club fulfill the Liga MX's new youngsters' rule.
For a club not really known for producing homegrown talents, signing Alvarado made sense. What better way to notch up the 765 minutes the Liga MX stipulates that players born in 1997 or before need to fulfill in accordance with the new rule than signing a player already with league experience? Alvarado fit the bill in that respect but it has become clear early in this Apertura that Cruz Azul's intentions with the forward -- who can play on either wing or, more predominantly, behind the striker -- went beyond merely his age.
"From when I arrived, [sporting director] Ricardo Pelaez and [manager] Caixinha told the youngsters that we're not here because of the rule, but to win a spot and we all viewed it with that objective," said Alvarado recently.
Alvarado showed in La Maquina's comfortable 3-0 victory over Leon on Saturday why some early shouts for him to be called into the national team for next month's games against Uruguay and the United States are not misplaced. He collected a hat-trick of assists in the win, with each highlighting different elements of the youngster's game.
First there was a reverse-pass, splitting the Leon defense to put Elias Hernandez through on goal for Cruz Azul's opening goal in the 32nd minute. Ten minutes later, the left-footed Alvarado picked the ball up only a few yards outside his own penalty area, flicked it over Luis Montes' head, charged over the halfway line, weathered a heavy challenge from Andres Mosquera, kept charging and sent in a low cross from which Hernandez converted.
It was a 14-second counter from Cruz Azul defending a corner to Hernandez putting the ball into the net, with Alvarado in possession for 10 of those.
Cruz Azul's third goal came from from an inch-perfect, left-footed cross onto the head of Milton Caraglio. But aside from the cross, what was really noticeable was the way Alvarado paused to assess where goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota (who was out of position) was situated before sending in the cross for Caraglio.
It hinted at the maturity of a player with first-team minutes under his belt. When you watch Alvarado alongside the likes of established pros like Elias Hernandez, Martin Cauteruccio and Edgar Mendez, the fact he is a teenager is not immediately obvious. Alvarado plays for his teammates, presses effectively when not in possession and seems to be a balanced character off the field.
Alvarado's development trajectory, which is taking him toward becoming an established Liga MX player and a starter for the league leader, is rare in Mexico. It seems more akin to the path top South American talents tend to take.
The Irapuato native made his first team debut with Celaya just two weeks after celebrating his 15th birthday. A trial at Leicester City followed before he broke out in the 2016 Apertura, scoring six goals in 14 games. Alvarado's stint in Mexico's second division at the start of his career honed his skills in a first-team environment and earned him a move to Pachuca in time for the 2017 Clausura.
But after only six months at Pachuca, Alvarado was moved on to Necaxa as part of the deal to bring Chile international Edson Puch to Pachuca last summer. A year later Alvarado was bought by Cruz Azul despite reported interest from AZ Alkmaar and Sporting Lisbon.
Despite all the upheaval of being at four clubs while still a teenager, Alvarado has been playing consistently. Unlike many youngsters who have to wait patiently for their opportunity, Alvarado has been getting real experience in pressure situations against seasoned opponents. In fact, Alvarado has never appeared in Mexico's Under-17 league and has played only four times in the Under-20s.
Instead, Alvarado has 116 first-team appearances across Liga MX, Ascenso MX and Copa MX. In comparison, Club America's 18-year-old Diego Lainez -- arguably Mexico's biggest talent in some time -- has 38 (and only 23 starts), although he is a little over a year younger than Alvarado.
If there is an area Alvarado needs to improve moving forward, it is his goal ratio. He's only netted 15 goals as yet although he showed his potential in that regard when he smashed a finish into the top corner of the net to earn Cruz Azul victory against Tigres in round three of the Apertura. Three goals in five games for Mexico's U-21s at the Toulon Tournament back in June also highlighted that he has the ability to take that next step.
At the national team level, Alvarado is part of the group being primed for the 2020 men's Olympic football tournament but at the rate the Cruz Azul youngster is developing, he'll be a regular in the full national team squad before then.