<
>

Could Pizarro be what Mexico needs to finally move on from Vela?

play
Mexico are the class of CONCACAF 'by a wide margin' (1:05)

Kasey Keller says Mexico are back to dominating CONCACAF after struggling early in the 2010s. (1:05)

The saga of Carlos Vela returning or not returning to the Mexican national team has become slightly boring, especially because the likelihood of him coming back is remote at best.

The gossip in recent weeks fueled by the LAFC player and MLS MVP's outstanding displays for his club during 2019 and Vela not totally ruling out a return, but he's not the only Mexican player with the ability to unlock defenses, play as an inverted winger, find space in-between the lines, score goals and drag opposition defenders away to leave opportunities open for others.

In one recent interview, Mexico coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino was asked which players he would choose if he had to vote for "The Best" of Mexican football this year. He only named one player: Rodolfo Pizarro.

On Friday, in El Tri's 3-0 victory over Panama in CONCACAF Nations League action and over his nine games for the national team, inverted left-winger Pizarro has quietly made his case to become the squad's creative hub.

- CONCACAF Nations League: All you need to know

It's certainly not a ridiculous claim, even if when Hirving Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona come back Pizarro's place may be under threat. But given Martino's support, it wouldn't be a surprise if Pizarro kept Corona out.

Pizarro was fouled more than other Mexican player as Panama attempted to curb him, but Pizarro is used to special attention in Liga MX and seems to enjoy the physical challenge. He's also taken onboard Martino's pressing strategy with aplomb and even though Pizarro's strength is when he's on the ball facing goal, the defensive side of his game is also solid.

Pizarro isn't on Vela's level yet and needs to up his numbers in terms of goals and assists to get close, but the way he moved the ball forward for Mexico's opener against Panama, springing up after getting fouled and then calmly laying the ball off for Roberto Alvarado to set up Raul Jimenez to score was an example of what the Tamaulipas native brings to Mexico.

The 25-year-old would likely have played more games this year than any other Mexican player, if he hadn't picked up an injury ahead of the Gold Cup.

At Monterrey, Pizarro scored a golazo the weekend before the international break in the team's win over Tijuana, highlighting his close control, ability to take players on and his finishing. Pizarro struggled earlier in the season and there's been a debate about whether left-wing, right-wing or a more central attacking midfield role is his best position.

But there can be no argument that Pizarro would be near the very top of any debate about who the best player in Liga MX right now and e'll be hoping to capture some international attention when Monterrey travels to Qatar for the Club World Cup next month.

It's no coincidence that Pizarro -- who started at Pachuca as a right-back -- has won Liga MX titles with both Los Tuzos and Chivas and has twice been part of CONCACAF Champions League-winning teams (with Chivas and Monterrey).

- FIFA Club World Cup: What you need to know

The question mark over Pizarro remains off-field issues. There's a sense, fair or not, that he's immature. Pizarro tends to respond to criticism on social media, has dyed his hair silver, made a huge public gaffe during Chivas' 2016 Clausura title party, has recently celebrated goals mimicking "The Joker" and generally seems to have a lot of personality, which isn't always to everyone's liking. That sense of immaturity was probably the reason that former Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio didn't include Pizarro in Mexico's squad for the 2018 World Cup.

But it could well be that Pizarro is a bright youngster who doesn't fit into the box footballers are expected to exist in. He certainly showed maturity when a video last summer circulated of a Tigres fan attempting to wind him up when he was on vacation. And that personality comes out in his game: Pizarro tries things others wouldn't and in a Mexico side that doesn't have too much in the way of out-and-out flair, the Monterrey player stands out, especially now Martino is boosting his confidence.

Moving towards Qatar 2022, it'll be important for Pizarro to achieve his goal of playing in Europe if he is to maximize his potential. There is a widely reported clause in his contract with Monterrey that allows him to leave ro Europe for half the price it would cost a Mexican club, but despite interest from AC Milan and others, nothing further materialized.

After a delicate and difficult last World Cup cycle under Osorio, Pizarro, along with Jimenez, is perhaps the player that has most benefited from Martino's reign so far.

The question now is whether Pizarro can find that next gear and go from probable starter and impacting games against CONCACAF opposition to become one of the first names on the team sheet when Mexico's more important and demanding games than the CONCACAF Nations League swing around.

The ability is undoubtedly there.