A Nightmare for Mexico's Soccer Opponents: More Chuckys On the Way

  • Football
  • Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018

PACHUCA, Mexico — In the bottom floor of the dormitory at one of Mexico’s most successful soccer academies, more than two dozen middle-school-age boys gathered last week to watch intently as Croatia crushed Argentina in a World Cup game.

They wore the orange shirts and black pants of Pachuca, a professional soccer club whose academy at the University of Football and Sports Sciences here has given the Mexican national team some of its most exciting stars at the World Cup.

Hirving Lozano, 22, the rising superstar of the Mexican team, is called Chucky, after the horror-film character, because he used to hide and then frighten his teammates at the academy. He and two other standouts from Pachuca — Érick Gutiérrez, 23, and Héctor Herrera, 28 — represent a young wave of talent that has helped propel Mexico to a strong shot at advancing to the round of 16 after its game against Sweden on Wednesday.

The boys at the academy hope not only to make the team one day but also to turn Mexico into what it has long aspired to be: a soccer powerhouse on the world stage. The country has not made it past the round of 16 in the World Cup since 1986.

“I’m chasing my dream, which is to be a professional soccer player,” said Jose Luis Silva, 13, who watched the game, something instructors encourage the recruits to do to help their learning. “I’ve known that since I was 5 or 6.”

Lozano has received particular notice in the tournament for scoring the only goal in Mexico’s stunning upset of the defending World Cup champion, Germany. And now, Pachuca gets a lot of attention for the promise of minting more Chuckys.

Once unable to compete with the financial heavyweights of the Mexican professional soccer league, Pachuca, 90 minutes northeast of Mexico City, became an ascendant team that has taken a disciplined approach to youth development.

The club targeted young players it could groom, instead of relying on expensive older players. It brought in coaches who had trained in England, Spain, Argentina and the Netherlands. It focused heavily on education, nutrition, sports science and consistent training at every level, from age 10 and up.

“We bring in the best, say, 14-year-old Mexicans, surround them with the best elements to develop, and that way we can aspire to have the best players in Mexico,” said Marco Garcés, Pachuca’s sporting director, a key figure in modernizing the club.

“They are a factory churning out good players,'’ said Hérculez Gómez, a former star for the U.S. national team who spent several years playing in the top Mexican league, including briefly with Pachuca. “Most programs are focused on the past. This is one of the few that is focused on the future.”

At the academy, players’ days are scheduled down to the minute. Most wake by 6 a.m., have five minutes to get out of bed and 15 minutes to shower before at least two hours of training, 50 minutes of math and 40 minutes of Spanish class, 70 minutes of free time, and so on. They are in bed by 10 p.m.

At the entrance of the main dining hall, players place their fingers on a scanner that prints out a ticket for the specific meal each will eat: A purple one means a double serving of carbohydrates for the underweight; orange means fewer carbohydrates for those needing to shed pounds; and green orders a standard meal. The regular lunch on a recent day consisted of a large serving of rice and beans; carne asada; cooked squash and corn; a salad of lettuce, carrots and jicama; tortillas; and optional flan for dessert.

“Carbohydrates are the gasoline for soccer players,” Garcés said. “Their diets are normally high in protein and fat. So we drop the proteins and up the carbohydrates — more fruit, vegetables, still with some proteins.”

Garcés, 45, a former Pachuca player, arrived in 2011. The club had already invested heavily in youth development under owner Jesús Martínez, who also owns the university and the professional team in León. (Carlos Slim, who owns a significant number of shares in The New York Times, held a stake in the club for five years before selling last year.)

Garcés helped fine-tune Pachuca’s approach. He earned a degree in football and science at Liverpool John Moores University in England and was determined to apply what he had learned about physiology, biomechanics, training and tactics to the club.

Garcés also studied how the titans of European clubs, such as FC Barcelona and Manchester United, operated. He brought in Hans Westerhof — a coach of youth and professional teams in the Netherlands such as Ajax and of Mexican professional teams such as Guadalajara — and Westerhof’s son, Wout, also a coach.

Garcés also hired Efraín Flores, the former coach of the top-flight Atlas club in Guadalajara, to lead Pachuca’s first division team. Alfredo Altieri, who had worked for Club Atlético Boca Juniors in Argentina, was hired to direct the youth teams, known as the “fuerzas basicas.”

“There was a great foundation, but we organized it a bit more,” Altieri said, “and provided a specific game plan, an outline on how to train players individually, and a format for the residential and academic portions.”

On the field, the academy emphasized a specific form of play — how to attack and defend with speed — at every age level. Hans Westerhof, who has since retired, introduced European training ideas, such as small group practices, and Wout Westerhof wrote a manual for coaches. Rigorous physical training does not begin until players are 15, in an attempt to avoid injuries and burnout.

“What we really want is for them to amass the 10,000 hours to become an expert,” Garcés said, referring to a belief among some social scientists that it takes that long to master something. “By the time they’re 18, they have those 10,000 hours.”

Garcés also emphasizes injury prevention and exercises that mimic spontaneous movements on the field. The academy measures players’ bodies regularly and sends them to weekly visits with a nutritionist.

“Here in Mexico, our mothers transmit their love through food,” Garcés said. “You get home, and they serve you a lot. It’s about teaching them that this is their gasoline, and the better fuel you put in your body, the better it’ll respond.”

The club has 16 scouts across Mexico and a tryout system to hunt the best prospects, occasionally finding them in the United States. Like other Mexican clubs, Pachuca offers scholarships for housing, training and academics. (Lozano is still enrolled at the university through online courses; he is studying physical education.)

Once players are admitted to the club, Pachuca seeks to funnel them through the ranks to its team in the nation’s top-flight league, Liga MX, or to other teams, and sometimes to bigger professional leagues, including those in Europe.

Pachuca’s facilities have grown over the years. There are 11 fields, eight grass and three artificial turf. The main soccer facility, for the highest-level teams, has a modern weight room, whirlpools and a movie theater. A facility for girls and women, another arm of the club that is growing rapidly, opened this year. The staff — from directors to tutors — numbers 150.

“It’s a large infrastructure and a substantial investment but makes us successful,” Garcés said. “But aside from the results, it feels good to give opportunities to young Mexicans. When you see Chucky or Guti” — Gutiérrez — “scoring goals now, you remember they were here four years ago on our under-20 team.”

During a recent practice, Rodrigo Samaniego, the coach for the team of 12-year-olds, who recently won a regional title, oversaw drills and competitions that focused on dribbling through cones, spacing on defense and a lot of passing.

“It’s very important that they enjoy soccer at this age,” Samaniego said. “There’s pressure on them here already.”

Pachuca’s first division team is often younger than the rest of the league. Gutiérrez and Lozano benefited from that. (Herrera blossomed late; he was plucked from a second division team, placed on the first division team and later sold to FC Porto in Portugal.) And when players prosper, Pachuca exports them to other teams. Rodolfo Pizarro, another homegrown player, was sold to Guadalajara, and Lozano to PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands last year.

Garcés said Pachuca had netted more than $100 million from the sale of players over the past four years. And, he said, 65 of Pachuca’s 250 players were on national teams of all levels.

Raúl Gutiérrez, who coached the men’s 2016 Olympic soccer team that included Érick Gutiérrez and Lozano, said that whether the young players stayed with Pachuca or moved on, it was good for Mexican soccer.

“Those young players have an advantage because they have a strong opportunity to play at the top level, develop and mature,” he said. “So it’s only natural that they become good first division players and then naturally for the Mexican national team, too.”

Miguel Tapias, 21, was recruited to Pachuca’s youth program at 11 from his hometown, Hermosillo, a day’s drive away, and is now on the club’s first division team. Seeing the success of Gutiérrez, Lozano and Herrera on top professional teams and in the World Cup has been inspiring, he said.

“It’s a good motivator to know that they made it and everyone can try to do the same,” Tapias said. “They were here once, and now they’re in the World Cup.”

When Gutiérrez and Lozano were with Pachuca, they were inseparable friends. Gutiérrez, who came from a humble upbringing in Sinaloa state, was known as the mature leader who often stood up for Lozano, a small speedster whose hardheaded personality clashed with coaches and teammates. Despite wanting to release Lozano several times because of inconsistent play or discipline problems on the field, Garcés knew his mission was to mold maturing adolescents.

“Thankfully, we didn’t, because look at what we would’ve lost,” Garcés said. He pulled out his cellphone to show a photo of baby-faced Lozano and Gutiérrez when they were 10 and new to Pachuca.

“This photo means a lot to me,” he said. “It’s really emotional to see them at this level. They’ve produced and it’s left us very proud.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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