Ventura Alvarado is a new man.
Formerly a player searching for his place in Liga MX, Alvarado is now the lynchpin of the Necaxa defense. He's settled into his role as the starting center back on the left side with 30 starts between the 2018 Apertura and 2019 Clausura. He's quick to get to the ball and challenge attackers. He's eager to cut off a key pass. He's calling out commands to the rest of the back line.
Tonight he'll captain Necaxa against Monterrey in the first leg of a Liga MX quarterfinal, with the armband a reminder of how far he's come and how much he's improved as a player and a person in the last year.
This isn't the Alvarado most fans remember, especially in the United States. The defender's last minutes with the U.S. national team came back in the 2015 Gold Cup, where fans might remember him getting smoked by Panama forward Luis Tejada in a group stage draw before the Americans crashed out of the tournament with a semifinal loss against Jamaica.
"I’ve matured a lot. I’m thankful for everything that has happened, everything I’ve experienced in football and in life. I’ve matured, and now I’m captain and get to show that maturity," he told Goal. "For me, it’s really important. I didn’t stay in the same place. I’ve kept getting better - on the field getting the details better - mentally and as a person as well. That’s why I earned the captain role. I’m in a good place that I have to take advantage of as well."
Watching the defender struggle against Concacaf competition years ago, it was tough to imagine him leading a Liga MX team to the playoffs. But the instability of his club career and the frustration of the Gold Cup seems like ages ago for the 26-year-old.
In 2015, he was struggling for minutes in Mexico's top division. Alvarado got sporadic playing time with America, sometimes at right center back, sometimes at right back. He even helped Las Aguilas to a title victory in the 2014 Apertura and the 2014-15 Concacaf Champions League. Yet it became clear he wouldn't be able to be a starter for the grande. Alvarado moved to Santos Laguna but was displaced there by talented rising stars from the academy. In 2017, he returned to Necaxa, a club he'd played with in the second division while on loan from America in 2013-14.
It still took time for him to settle in as a starter and a left-sided defender. Since the start of the 2018 Apertura, though, he's refused to relinquish his starting role. Rayos coach Guillermo Vazquez has put his confidence in Alvarado and been rewarded with standout performances.
Alvarado would love for U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter to do the same, but says he's yet to hear from the national team boss or his coaching staff. Putting the Stars and Stripes shirt back on "will always be a goal," for Alvarado, but his extended absence from the national team let him drill down on the details at the club level and progress over the last two seasons.
"Right now, I’m 100 percent focused on Necaxa. Maybe that’s why it’s been sort of good for me that they haven’t called me up. Sometimes they call you and you play and you don’t get any rest or anything," he said. "Now that I’ve solidified my place with Necaxa, it’d be really good to go to the national team, take advantage of the starting role I’ve had here. With the Liguilla ending (before the Gold Cup), I’d like another opportunity."
That opportunity may or may not come, but Alvarado will have a chance to show himself on a big stage. Necaxa earned the sixth seed in Liga MX this regular season and now faces reigning Concacaf Champions League titleholders Monterrey.
Rayados bring a host of problems for defenders, with players like forward Rogelio Funes Mori, attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, and wingers Dorlan Pabon and Aviles Hurtado who make life hell for defenders. Alvarado has it clear that he can't do it alone in Thursday's first leg or the second leg Sunday at Estadio BBVA Bancomer.
"Obviously they have a lot of good players, a lot of names, a lot of really talented players. The best thing we can do is to play as a team. Defend as a team, attack as a team," he said. "I think our strength is that we have more hunger than them, more desire to get out of the tie. That’s going to help us.
"We’re always going to go out and play how we want to play. We’re not going to change if we play against whoever, Leon, Tigres, America, Cruz Azul, we’re going to play the same. It’s the only way we know how to play, I think, and it’s taken us to the Liguilla. We’re not going to change anything. If we win, it’s because we played as a team. That’s the only way."
With a few injury absences, a red card in a critical match and a few bad games this tournament, Alvarado acknowledges it hasn't all been puppies and cupcakes for him this season. Yet, despite that, he's still enjoying the best season of his career, one he hopes will continue with an upset win this round of the playoffs and a long-awaited return to the national team.
"It’s not easy to get to the Liguilla. It’s not easy to be here. A really difficult game is coming, and I have to keep taking advantage of that, getting rhythm," he said. "Playing against the champion of Concacaf is a chance to show what I’ve done.
"The season has been good. I’ve made some mistakes here and there but showing up and paying well, that shows the strength and attitude, the strong mentality. Any other player, or other people things like that happen to, they might fall down, but I’m ready for whatever challenge and whatever might come."