MEXICO CITY -- Who will be the anointed one to step up and challenge 28-year-old Raul Jimenez and 31-year-old Javier Hernandez in the center-forward position for the Mexico national team moving forward?
It's been a question circling El Tri for at least a few years, but it now has a tentative answer: all signs point to Jose Juan Macias.
And if that sounds like hype or ladening unwanted pressure on a 20-year-old striker who has only started 33 games in Liga MX, the difference is that Macias has been preparing for this.
Macias is a little different. From a moneyed family in Guadalajara, Macias sought a move from hometown club Chivas to get more minutes, which wasn't to everyone's liking. Who likes a jumpy teenage upstart knocking on the coach's door for more minutes? But the minutes have come -- in a Leon shirt -- and he has taken advantage with 16 goals in his first 30 games. Not bad for a player who was still a teenager until a couple of weeks ago.
There's a swagger about a player who has now scored four goals in his first three appearances with El Tri and looks like he belongs on the international stage, even if the CONCACAF Nations League and games against Bermuda and Panama aren't exactly the litmus test.
On Tuesday, in Mexico's 3-1 victory over Panama, coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino turned to Macias with his team slightly unfortunate -- given its domination -- to be at 1-1 in the 66th minute. Nine minutes later, Macias had Mexico up, thrashing the ball into the net from just inside the penalty area after taking a touch to steady himself.
"It's unexplainable," Macias told TUDN after the game. "It's not just this goal, I have to look for more, I have to keep on working."
This is Mexico's best center-forward talent since Hernandez lit up Liga MX back in 2010 with Chivas before earning a World Cup spot in South Africa. Even the forward-looking mentality is reminiscent. And it's no surprise that European clubs are watching on, even if Martino was cautious about about reports that scouts were present on Tuesday in Estadio Azteca.
"It's probable that there are scouts taking [Macias and fellow youngster Cristian Calderon] into consideration, but I'd also say that the big teams in Europe will have their eye on over 100 footballers. ... That doesn't mean they'll buy them," said Martino ahead of the game. "If they are being looked at by Benfica or Manchester United, or others, the players should keep trying to establish themselves, earn attention and try to go [to Europe] as complete as possible for a 10-year career [in Europe]."
There's much work to do for Macias, who is keen on a move to Europe, but he's the best-positioned striker to push Jimenez and Hernandez leading up to Qatar 2022, as ambitious a statement as that seems right now.
"Jose is taking advantage of his opportunity," said Martino after the game. "He an intelligent kid. It's not just the goal, it's how he adapted to the game when he came on, because it wasn't an easy situation."
Aside from Macias' performance, this was a solid display from El Tri, especially in the first half, even if there was some concern from Martino about the drop in the second half and the way his players abandoned the playing idea for the first 25 minutes.
The 23,460-strong crowd didn't respond to Mexico's first ever home CONCACAF Nations League game, but El Tri generally dominated what turned into a hard-fought encounter.
The positives were that Mexico had 69 percent of possession, created eight chances and never really looked like conceding until Rodolfo Pizarro gave the ball away and Carlos Salcedo unwittingly put the ball into his own net from a Gabriel Torres cross just before half-time.
Cruz Azul's Roberto Alvarado opened the scoring and is increasingly looking like an international quality player; there was a intriguing performance from Hirving Lozano in a center-forward role - which he's started to play at Napoli - in the 4-3-3 formation and there was special praise from Martino for Necaxa left-back Cristian Calderon. On the rare occasion Raul Gudino was tested in goal, the Chivas keeper was up to it.
Off the field and in the stands, the goalkeeper chant wasn't heard after a strenuous campaign from the Mexican federation, meaning the game wasn't stopped.
On the more negative side, the center-back partnership of Nestor Araujo and Salcedo is fine on paper, but doesn't yet instill confidence on the field. It's something Martino will be concerned about, especially as Araujo is the only Mexican defender playing in Europe.
Pizarro wasn't at his best, but did wrap up the game with the third goal in second half injury time and still appears to be one of Martino's favorites.
The other negative was the persistent fouling of Lozano, who ended up being stretchered off as Macias entered in the 66th. Luckily for him and Napoli, Martino stated that it appears only to be a knock, although that'll likely have to be confirmed back in Italy. Lozano left the Azteca limping, but exited without the help of anyone.
Overall though, this has been a good international break for Martino and his squad. Mexico controls Group B of the CONCACAF Nations League after two victories and, most importantly of all, younger players like Macias and Calderon are showing early promise in a national team shirt.