Not just Ibrahimovic's pal: MLS 'biggest talent' Efrain Alvarez set for Mexico star role at U-17 World Cup

The LA Galaxy standout is ready to step out of the formidable shadow of his more famous teammate and shine for El Tri in Brazil

When Zlatan speaks, the world listens.

So, when Ibrahimovic took time this summer to shower praise on his LA Galaxy teammate Efrain Alvarez, it certainly drew plenty of attention.

“In MLS, he’s by far the biggest talent from everybody because he thinks football. He has that football in him. It’s natural. It didn’t come from him training or something,” Ibra told reporters after Alvarez assisted one of his two goals in a 2-0 July 4 win over Toronto FC.

“He’s not afraid to take action. He plays with a lot of confidence. Mistakes come, but we all make mistakes.”

That’s the context in which the world knows Alvarez’s name and part of the reason he has landed on so many Under-17 World Cup ‘Players to Watch’ lists – including Goal’s.

He’s a guy who has been endorsed by Ibra, and that carries some significant weight – especially when you consider the words Ibra has had for his MLS rivals like likely MVP Carlos Vela or even his own teammates at times.

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Alvarez is more than just Zlatan’s pal, though. As Mexico prepares to take on Paraguay and open its U-17 World Cup campaign, Alvarez will take on a starring role of his own as El Tri look to capture their third crown at this age level.

Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto picked and chose spots for the 17-year-old this season, but he still was able to earn four starts and had 518 minutes in 14 appearances. In those matches, he earned three assists, setting up Ibra twice and creating a goal for Daniel Steres once. 

Alvarez hasn’t exactly struggled when he’s needed to play a bigger role, though, as he will for Marco Antonio Ruiz’s squad in Brazil. The left-footed creative player long has been a standout at lower levels, earning the 2018 USL Young Player of the Year award after a season in which he notched 12 goals for LA Galaxy II.

It worked out to a goal every 103 minutes, a remarkable rate for a 16-year-old. Go back farther and you can find highlight-reel clips of Alvarez dominating Development Academy games.

It’s why both Mexico and the U.S. have called the attacker into camps, though his commitment to Mexico hasn’t wavered in some time.

Senior national team manager Tata Martino counted Alvarez as almost a sure thing when asked about young dual-nationals earlier this year, and after helping Mexico to the Concacaf U-17 championship in May, he’d have to file a change of association and tie himself to the U.S. were he to reverse course.

That tournament also was a success for Alvarez, who assisted Santigo Munoz’s equalizer in the final against the U.S. and scored three goals during the course of the overly long tournament.

There seems to be little doubt that with his excellent dribbling and ability to change speeds almost like a player on FIFA 20, Alvarez will be producing more highlights during this tournament, whether he’s scoring goals, setting them up or simply dancing past defenders as he kills off time.

For Alvarez and all of Mexico, there is a fair level of pressure on them this tournament. The 2005 team that left Peru as champion has formed a base of players who excelled with the senior team, with Hector Moreno, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Carlos Vela among the standout alumni. Two editions later, in 2011, Mexico again won a title.

Those teams serve as reminders that the real key here is development. Teams like Nigeria and Mexico have lifted this trophy only for the triumphs on the youth level to fail to transfer into senior team success in the future. Still, Mexico wants to win any competition in which it takes part.

“The expectations are high, because that’s how the Mexican federation has laid them out. We’re looking to get Mexico, in every international competition it participates in, to always be in the top four places and this tournament isn’t the exception,” Ruiz said.

“We’re aspiring to be in those top four places, but we know it won’t be easy. Our opponents are the best in the world, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the team.” 

In Alvarez, he has a player whose development is already going down a good path. In Brazil, Alvarez can step out of Ibra’s formidable shadow and make a name for himself.

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