From fans signing "El Chucky Lozano" in Russia to the PSV winger showing up at every single Mexico camp after the World Cup, the transition was complete. Mexico national team veterans had made way for the new generation. Hirving Lozano is the biggest star for Mexico now.
Between his superb play and his commitment to the national team, just one thing could derail Lozano from leading El Tri into this summer's Gold Cup. Unfortunately for him and for Mexico coach Tata Martino, that was the exact thing that happened. Lozano had to pull out of the squad because of a knee injury suffered at the end of the Eredivisie season.
Commercially, Mexico will suffer from the loss of its most marketable player. But, more critically for Martino and fans of the team, missing Lozano also is a blow to the team's hopes of lifting the Gold Cup at Soldier Field on July 7. Lozano's name would've been in ink on Martino's starting XI sheets in the knockout round of the tournament, with few worries about how he was going to perform. Lozano already has stood out at the Gold Cup, scored in the Champions League and dominated the Eredivisie. He could handle the Gold Cup.
That the manager wanted Lozano to cross the Atlantic so Mexico's medical staff could evaluate the injury shows how badly he was hoping the 23-year-old would recover in time to help
"Our medical staff, understands that there's an injury and that can keep you out for a certain amount of time," Martino said a month ago. "The time our doctors think really differs from that of those at PSV and what we're going to make is make a decision without any type of risk. If at any time time we think the player is risking something, he automatically will be out of the competition."
Lozano arrived in Mexico City using crutches and the medical staff eventually sent him back to the Netherlands to continue his recovery with PSV. Not will he miss the tournament, but other absences have complicated replacing Lozano.
In addition to Chucky being gone, the attack depth already was going to suffer. Carlos Vela, red-hot with LAFC and able to play all around the attack, elected to stay with LAFC. Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, another true winger like Lozano, is in a dispute with Martino that remains unresolved. Forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the team's all-time leading scorer and someone who could've added depth, is attending to the birth of his child. Even Tigres winger Javier Aquino reportedly turned down a call-up.
So what options does Martino have at the left wing spot that would've been Lozano's?
The top candidates to fill the spot have recently played elsewhere but have the versatility to line up to the left of Raul Jimenez and work with the Wolves forward to create problems for Concacaf opposition.
The first option is Roberto Alvarado, the 20-year-old Cruz Azul midfielder who has played on the wing and as a forward but also saw plenty of time as an interior midfielder this season. He recently was named to Liga MX's official Best XI for young players. In 19 Clausura matches played, Alvarado created 20 chances. He had two assists in the season. He didn't cross the ball often but completed 10 percent of those he attempted. Alvarado also scored twice on his own, once with his left foot and once with his right.
Martino also can start Monterrey's Jesus Gallardo at left wing. Gallardo played that position as he came through the ranks at Pumas and still plays in an attacking role with Monterrey. Martino's predecessor, Juan Carlos Osorio, felt Gallardo could profile as a left back. He was right, with the now-24-year-old suiting up as Mexico's left back during group wins against Germany and South Korea at the World Cup.
Martino may be looking at Jorge Sanchez in that role, however, after starting the Club America defender there in his second game as El Tri manager. Sanchez looked capable in the win against Paraguay, which would free up Gallardo to move up the field and occupy the space in which Lozano would've played.
Rodolfo Pizarro seems like a strong option on the right side, where Martino had to have envisioned Corona or Vela playing when he took the job at the start of the year. Pizarro is a talented attacker, but he's not a true winger. He's far better working through the middle. The same goes for Leon's Luis Montes, another player who could see time on the right-hand side of attack.
El Tri fans will be disappointed not to see Lozano this summer, playing what will be the national team's biggest tournament for two years. While not seeing the nation's biggest star is frustrating enough, his absence also creates a big void for Martino to fill. Should Alvarado, Gallardo or a surprise candidate fill the role, Mexico will need strong showings to make sure what was their biggest strength doesn't turn into a weakness. The attack was thin before Lozano's injury ruled him out of the tournament. Now, another player must capture the fans' affection with attacking magic for Mexico to achieve its goal of winning the continental championship.