It would be difficult to talk about El Tri’s first two matches of the 2019 Gold Cup tournament without mentioning Uriel Antuna. What’s more incredible than his breakout performance as of late is the fact that the 21-year-old player wasn’t meant to participate in the tournament in the first place.
Tata Martino’s full squad didn’t include Antuna even after having executed a good showing during the two friendlies between Venezuela (where he got an assist) and Ecuador to kick off the summer.
But a matter of circumstances that included Club Amèrica defender Jorge Sanchez being injured (and several other absences) saw Antuna’s uncertainty end and at last he was in the final squad for the national team.
Sanchez’s injury might have benefitted Antuna but it isn’t luck that suddenly brought him to the attention of the national team or Martino.
Antuna was part of the U20 side for Mexico that got all the way up to the quarterfinals of the 2017 FIFA U20 World Cup. Earlier this year, he made his way to the LA Galaxy from Manchester City who sent him on loan to Holland to play for Groningen. Since arriving, he has started all 16 matches with Galaxy and has two goals and two assists.
The contributions he’s made to his MLS team provided him the stepping stones to be considered for this tournament and as Mexico finds the strength to dominate despite the lack of certain skilled players on the field, so too does Antuna find ways to capitalize on his own assets and use them to help his international teammates.
The match against Cuba where the young player not only played but also started was the epitome of him making the most out of his chance. Just two minutes in, he had already scored his first goal with the senior team. He’d get another in the 44th minute and complete his hat trick in the 80th minute—three goals and one assist throughout the full duration of that match. The spotlight followed him after that match but with Martino in charge, the Argentine manager made sure to make a point that while it was a good game, there was still more to improve on.
Against Canada, undoubtedly the toughest team that Mexico would face in the group stage who also have their eyes on a Gold Cup championship, Antuna not only improved but exceeded expectations. His pass in the 40th minute led to Jimenez’s first shot before Alvarado got the rebound to score the first goal. He provided Guardado with the assist after cutting and leaving Alphonso Davies elsewhere. He ended the match with 100 percent pass accuracy, completing 20 out of 20 passes.
Rodolfo Pizarro might very well be fully recovered soon, leaving Tata Martino with a big decision to make about Antuna starting more matches, even one against Martinique on Sunday that isn’t as nerve-wracking but that still needs to be won given the team hasn’t solidified their spot in the quarterfinals. Still, while Mexico collectively has earned six out of six points so far and more starts for him might decrease as the tournament goes on, Antuna has already earned so much more this summer.