With a calm lift of his right foot to contact a cross, Victor Guzman showed he's back.
The 23-year-old midfielder smashed a perfect volley past Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas to draw Mexico level in the first half of a 3-2 win Thursday night against the Ticos. It was stunning moment, but it only added to the list of reasons to believe Guzman will be a critical piece of Mexico's World Cup squad in 2022.
Guzman probably should've been a piece of Mexico's World Cup squad in 2018, but his international career was cruelly delayed. After standing out for Pachuca after Hirving Lozano departed for Europe. His eight goals in the 2017 Apertura made him the top Mexican scorer for the tournament and also the highest-scoring player who doesn't line up as a forward. That earned him a call from Juan Carlos Osorio for the January camp and friendly, but knee ligament tears suffered in a match against Tigres just before the squad got together meant Guzman's season was over, as were his hopes of making a push for the World Cup roster.
He returned just six months later, beating out the timetable he'd been given, and has continued to show his ability. "El Pocho" impressed against the United States last month with his accurate cross-field passes finding Diego Lainez on the right wing and allowing the teenager to put the moves on U.S. defenders that eventually stole the headlines.
The headlines are now all for Guzman after his goal, but in the 90 minutes he played, Guzman continued to show not only that he can score and put passes on the money for players on either wing but also that he can help control the midfield. For Guzman, It's been as much about getting back the belief in himself that he can be a top-class player as it's been about executing on the field. He and the upcoming generation of Mexico players getting a shot for the first time all are trying to build that belief, and Thursday's result was a big step.
"We played against Costa Rica’s starting team. All us young players played. That’s how it is. We have to play games like that," he said, before turning to an idiom to describe the belief Mexico's group of young players need to display. "In the last window, we had two defeats that hurt us, but this win is important for the confidence that it gives and that we can have in ourself. We have to have the pants to take it on."
Mexico fans will be tempted to say that it wasn't pants Guzman showed he had, but rather that he displayed he has what those pants conceal. It was a brave performance from Guzman, the second he's put in for Mexico against regional rivals. More difficult matches will come, but Mexico manager Tuca Ferretti said these games have shown how Guzman and the rest of his generation are solving problems on the pitch.
"A characteristic the young players have is the commitment, the desire to be able to overcome adversities. In the first half, we made mistakes and they cost us two goals, but the team continued to grow and was able to come back," Ferretti said.
He was speaking generally, but it fits well with Guzman's recovery from injury, return to the field and swagger once he got there even as he's made his first two appearances with the national team.
There are fears in Hidalgo that Guzman is not being used correctly with Pachuca, with manager Pako Ayestaran pushing him out on the wing rather than playing him in the interior. The reality is that while it may not be the best use of Guzman's skills for Tuzos' current needs, he's polishing even more skills.
Guzman is a versatile player who can play as an interior midfielder, out wide and even has played as a playmaker in the past. His late run that led to the goal everyone will remember made his attacking instincts clear. And while playing 'out of position' at the club level may not be ideal for that club, it can be a big help for a national team manager. Just look at Carlos Salcedo holding down a fullback position for nearly a year and becoming Mexico's most versatile defender.
We might not know where exactly Guzman fits in for the national team for a while. We do know he has the necessary skills to make Mexico's next manager find a place for him. The knee injury couldn't stop Guzman's rise to becoming an El Tri star, it could only delay it.