The last time Mexican national team coach Tata Martino worked with an MLS scoring leader, he was managing Josef Martínez and Atlanta United to a league title.
That was in December 2018. A month later, he took over the Mexican national team and he hasn’t looked back, losing three times in 28 games and capturing a CONCACAF Gold Cup. And he’s done that without LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the man who eclipsed Martínez’s MLS scoring record, and with little help from the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the league’s current leader in goals.
Vela repeatedly has said he’s no longer interested in playing for the national team, while Hernández was last invited 22 months ago. That doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon since the Mexican team that opened training in Southern California on Monday included Galaxy teammates Jonathan dos Santos and Efraín Álvarez but not Hernández.
“We will keep him here all day if they don’t have a use for him,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said of Hernández, who has 10 goals in as many games. “We’re happy to have him.”
But if Vela and Hernández won’t be competing for Mexico this summer, they will be competing against it. MLS will announce Tuesday that both players will represent the league against a team of eight Liga MX players in a skills competition ahead of August’s MLS All-Star game at Banc of California Stadium.
Mexico’s national team, meanwhile, has sent much of its Olympic roster to Nashville for Wednesday’s game with Panama, while the core of this summer’s Gold Cup squad began training Monday in Southern California ahead of Saturday’s game with Nigeria at the Coliseum. That match will be Mexico’s first in the state in more than two years, but Vela, whose club team plays next door, won’t be there.
“When I started my process [with Mexico] he was one of the first I went to see,” Martino, speaking in Spanish, said of Vela, who hasn’t played for Mexico since the last World Cup in 2018. “We got together here in Los Angeles. He told me that he preferred to give priority to both his club and his family. So the situation practically ended at that moment.
“For a thinking person like Carlos, who is very clear about what he wants to do, it is very important to define it calmly and above all to be consistent with his ideas. It seems to me that he has always done that in his career.”
The situation with Hernández is a bit more complicated because while he repeatedly has said he’s open to a call-up, he hasn’t been asked. If he’s frustrated by that, he’s keeping it to himself.
“I am one more fan of the Mexican team,” Hernández, El Tri’s all-time leading scorer, said last week. “I hope they can win the Gold Cup, win the gold medal [in Tokyo], that they can qualify for the World Cup.”
Hernández’s snub is particularly noteworthy considering Mexico’s Gold Cup team will be without Henry Martín, who will be at the Olympics, while J.J. Macías, Alan Pulido and Raul Jiménez all are dealing with injuries.
Reports in Mexico claim Hernández is being punished for partying with teammates while with the national team for a September 2019 friendly in New Jersey. Hernández scored his 52nd international goal in that game but hasn’t been called back since.
A more likely reason for Hernández’s absence is his age. Despite his splendid form with the Galaxy, he is 33 and Mexico, which had the second-oldest team in the 2018 World Cup, desperately needs to audition young talent such as Álvarez, Hernández’s teenage Galaxy teammate who remains eligible to play for the U.S. as well.
Martino hopes to close that window by cap-tying Álvarez to Mexico in the Gold Cup.
“Efraín is 100% ours,” he said during a teleconference call last week. “He is a footballer that I have already taken on a tour last year, who has participated and will surely continue to do so soon. Efraín is like [Diego] Lainez, like Carlitos Rodríguez, like [Roberto] Alvarado, like [Uriel] Antuna. They are part of the future.
“Not only of the present, but also of the future, of the Mexico national team.”
As for the skills competition, Vela and Hernández, who played 30 times together with the national team, will lead an eight-man MLS squad against an equal number of players from Mexico’s Liga MX in a two-hour exhibition on Aug. 24, the day before the All-Star game. Players will compete in contests that require them to shoot at targets from distance; collect and control passes; connect with a teammate on crosses and volleys; and deliver pinpoint passes.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.