LA Galaxy loanee Antuna in the right place at the right time for Mexico
PASADENA, Calif. -- Gerardo "Tata" Martino had a message for LA Galaxy winger Uriel Antuna after the 21-year-old netted a hat trick in Mexico's 7-0 Gold Cup victory over Cuba on Saturday in the Rose Bowl.
"I'd tell him to not to listen to too much, not to go on social networks, not watch programs [on TV] because we [in the national team] won't be the ones letting this go to his head," said Martino in the news conference afterwards. "His performance was superb for someone who has just recently started [in the national team], it was a good night, that's all."
Like much of what he's done since taking over El Tri in January, Martino's tone was spot on: Antuna and Mexico were playing against a team ranked 175th in the world and with a defense vastly inferior to what they are used to.
But even putting the achievement into context, tuning out the reaction won't be easy for Antuna, who is on loan from Manchester City. Netting three times and recording an assist for his country in front of 65,527 in the famous Rose Bowl -- in the city he plays his club soccer -- will have made it difficult for the youngster to sleep after the game.
"I am very happy with the opportunity that coach Gerardo Martino is giving me," he told CONCACAF. "I am very happy I was able to score, but the team played a great game, so I am very happy to be here."
This felt like a breakout night of sorts after a bizarre last couple of weeks for Antuna. He was originally cut from Mexico's initial 23-player Gold Cup squad after El Tri's preparation game against Venezuela, only to sneak in after defender Jorge Sanchez picked up an injury in Mexico's final friendly against Ecuador. One journalist even labeled Antuna "No. 24."
But sometimes national team careers are propelled by being in the right place at the right time and that certainly fits Antuna's summer so far.
"He's taken advantage of the opportunity he was given tonight," said Martino, who will be playing a similar starting team against Canada on Wednesday in Denver. "He was very concentrated for the 90 minutes; the three goals were of a player that was very concentrated, all of them were rebounds and his attitude in pressing and in one-on-ones was great."
The speedy winger is from a humble background in northern Mexico, is soon to become a father, and seems to be centered in a way that Martino would appreciate. The signs are certainly positive that he won't be getting carried away.
For example, when Antuna arrived at the Galaxy earlier this year, he invited his old friend Carlos Escandon to visit. Escandon is the founder of the Charly Soccer school in Antuna's hometown of Lerdo, Durango, and is where Antuna was handed a pair of soccer boots and an opportunity.
Escandon was shown around the Galaxy's facilities by Antuna, who sent the school's director back to Mexico with Galaxy equipment for the kids.
"Until this day I continue to help [the school] and a lot of kids that don't have many advantages, many don't have a mother, or a father, they have a lot of difficulties to go and train," Antuna told ESPN FC back in February. "They help them with boots, with kits, with whatever they can and I do to in order that more people can grow and accomplish their dreams."
Antuna, who attended the school between the ages of 12 and 15, was one of those kids who needed some financial support to be able to play in boots with studs and properly train. One of the first things that Santos Laguna did when Antuna arrived as a 15-year-old was to try to improve his diet and put some weight on him.
"I lived for a long time in Ciudad Juarez," Antuna said back in February. "My parents became parents very, very young, so they went there [to Juarez] and I lived there. But I was born in Gomez [Palacio, Durango] ... My father worked for a [dairy products company], he delivered them and now he's with [a chip company] and I still help out, when I can I send to help with what I can."
You get the feeling that, with Antuna establishing himself alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Galaxy forward line and now being part of Mexico's Gold Cup campaign, it won't be long before Antuna's parents are financially secure.
But Martino's words of warning are wise and should be heeded. These are early days for Antuna, as they are for the Mexico national team at this Gold Cup. Tougher challenges lay ahead, but if there is one outstanding feature Martino can cling onto so far this summer, it is that the younger players like Antuna look driven to succeed -- as if this CONCACAF competition was actually a World Cup.