Miguel Layun's attitude and versatility make him Mexico's unsung hero
For Mexico defender Miguel Layun, May 27, 2013 divides before from after.
It was on that rainy night in Mexico City that Club America and Cruz Azul battled to penalties to decide the 2013 Clausura champion. With seven penalties taken -- three for America and four for Cruz Azul -- the score read 3-2 in favor of Las Aguilas. Layun was up next. If he could manage to convert from the spot, America would lift its 11th league title in front of a crazed crowd at the Estadio Azteca. A miss would mean keeping the shootout alive for Cruz Azul.
Layun almost slipped -- a la John Terry in the 2008 Champions League final -- but in the end, the ball kissed the back of the net. Mayhem broke loose around the mythical stadium.
From that moment forward, Layun went on to become one of his club's principal captains and leaders. He won the 2014 Apertura title with America and represented Mexico at the 2014 World Cup before earning a loan spell at Watford. In September 2015, he made his Champions League debut with Porto in a 2-2 draw against Dynamo Kyiv. He was beginning to pave a path in Europe.
Perhaps most important to this transformation -- to Layun, at least, what filled him with pride -- was his newfound role as an integral part of the Mexico national team.
Over the past 20 years, Mexico has advanced its full-back concept and made it imperative for defenders to be able to join the attack. Before Layun's entrance into the national team fold, Chivas' Carlos Salcido was a prime example of this change. His versatility, bulky figure and speed separated him from his defensive companions during the Ricardo Antonio La Volpe era from 2002 to 2006. Salcido arrived in Europe in 2006 as a two-footed full-back and returned to Liga MX in 2011 as a footballer capable of leading his team from a position that demanded both defensive and offensive technique.
Like Salcido before him, Layun has developed skills that permit him to play in different positions on the pitch -- particularly the defense and midfield -- during his time abroad. Even before agreeing to play for then Championship side Watford, Layun's confidence was noticeably high. He showcased his attacking abilities in a September 2014 matchup vs. Santos Laguna -- scoring four goals and earning the nickname and hashtag #Layundowski (in reference to formidable Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski) in the process.
As it stands, Layun can perhaps be regarded as Mexico's most versatile and multifaceted footballer. His experiences in Mexico, England and Portugal have seen him to exceed expectations and become an essential part of Mexico's current 22-game unbeaten streak.
Layun has started in 17 of Mexico's 22 most recent matches. He featured on two occasions at left-back vs. Canada in March -- the role he typically plays for Porto, where he scored five goals and added 15 assists during the 2015-16 season -- with the rest of his appearances coming down the right side as either a right-back or in the midfield. Mexico's 1-1 draw against Venezuela was the first time he played as a left-back since, after entering the match as a sub in the second half.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has received criticism for his decision to play Layun down the right side, but Layun's versatility is what makes him so vital to Osorio's team. Switching positions and flanks can be a real challenge for Layun, but it's this ability -- similar to Salcido -- that allows him to thrive as a key figure for the national team. Years from now, both Layun and Salcido will serve as prime examples of what Mexican full-backs should aspire to be.
Layun doesn't provide the goals of a Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, nor does he have the extensive European experience of an Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno or Marquez. What he does have, however, is an evident hunger to succeed. "I'm a person who likes to be challenged," he said soon after signing with Watford in January 2015. "I don't like the comfortable life."
At certain moments, it looks as though Layun has a tough time understanding his role as a midfielder in Osorio's system, but his never-give-up attitude and unrelenting desire to succeed in the face of new challenges mean he won't give up until he exceeds expectations yet again. His contagious hunger could just guide Mexico to the Copa America glory it's been searching for since its near miss in 1993.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.