Alfonso Nieto made his Pumas and Liga MX debut nearly seven years ago on August 8, 2010. Back then, Guillermo ‘Memo’ Vasquez was leading the team in his first stint. Not a single player that started that game against Cruz Azul remains with Pumas, and only a single player (David Cabrera) from the bench is still in the organization.
Nieto, who was 18-years old at the time and a promising attacking prospect, entered in the 63rd minute to replace Juan Carlos Cacho. At that time, Nieto earned the opportunity with his nose for goal, scoring 19 goals in 41 games for the U-20s.
Following his debut, sparse opportunities for first team minutes presented themselves, largely due to changes in managers and team administrators, which lead to a decline in academy support and a need to bring in outside talent that never lived up to the hype.
Early on, Nieto continued his scoring trends, scoring 11 goals in 31 games in 2011 with the U-20s, but performance declined over next several years with the club’s lack of confidence in their young talent.
Fast forward to 2016, Nieto seized the opportunity to shine with Rodrigo Ares taking over as Club President and promising to reignite the investment in the cantera. But shortly after having his best tournament with Pumas and winning a youth title, Nieto still couldn’t get a break.
With limited opportunities at Pumas, Nieto had to find another way for regular minutes in a competitive environment.
Nieto managed to make a huge leap at the start of 2017, and many would say an unexpected one. C.S. Herediano, Costa Rica’s biggest and most successful soccer team, landed the 25-year old striker on a one-year loan.
Not only did Nieto migrate to a new country to ply his trade, but the Pumas canterano was crowned champion in his first tournament.
Adapting to another country was a challenge Nieto admits, but the young striker kept his faith and things have turned out very positive.
“Adapting was not easy,” he admits. “It certainly took a toll on my wife and me. Leaving everything behind to go to a new place isn’t easy. Nutrition, schedules, and the type of soccer is different.”
“My wife and I set a goal to leave a champion, and with the help of God, he gave us the strength to overcome all the adversity.”
Nieto made a total of 15 appearances for Herediano, including eight starts. He scored in his debut on January 18th, and scored two goals in a February match, giving him three goals during the Verano tournament.
His 792 minutes with Herediano is more than any single season with Pumas in Liga MX play. The most minutes he earned in the first division with Pumas was 479 back in the 2012 Apertura.
Back in Mexico, Pumas have publically said their cantera will be rebuilt and the club will return to its roots. I asked Nieto about the current Pumas project, and how the club has committed to reinvesting in the cantera.
“I like the project involving the youth,” Nieto says. “I would have liked to have the support the canteranos are getting now. I would have liked to have more consideration, but things happen for a reason.”
Recent remarks by both Rodrigo Ares and head coach Paco Palencia suggest Pumas cantera is strong in some areas, but they lack forwards that can succeed in the first division. Considering Nieto’s success in both the Segunda Division with Pumas Premier, and with his time at Herediano, I asked him to weigh in on those remarks.
“In the time I was there, there were little opportunities given to forwards in the cantera. Maybe there are two or maybe ten in the end if you have confidence, they will learn and gain experience.”
Nieto’s peak at Pumas was in 2016 when Pumas Premier won the Clausura title in the Segunda Division. Not only did the club celebrate the championship, but Nieto was arguably the most valuable player.
In the regular season, Nieto scored six goals in 14 games. In the liguilla he took his game to another level, scoring another seven goals in six games. His 13 total goals helped the club lift the title and prove there is talent in the cantera.
“I scored many goals that even I didn’t know I was capable of,” Nieto says about his Clausura campaign. “All of it is thanks to the confidence that head coach Raul Alpizar gave me, his coaching staff, and my teammates.”
Considering the lack of opportunities given to Pumas canteranos in recent years, the championship of Pumas Premier was certainly a statement.
“I became a champion with a team that no one believed in. It’s an accomplishment that tastes better when you’re fighting against everything. The race is difficult, but when you have reasons to fight for, the unknown isn’t important as long as you work hard.”
The next challenge for Nieto will be finding a new home as Herediano announced his departure at the end of May despite the loan originally planned for one-year. As of last week, Nieto was unable to find a spot with a Mexican club.
When asked about what’s ahead, Nieto is enjoying the moment but isn’t quite ready to say what’s next. He’s leaving it in someone else’s hands.
“Right now I don’t know what my destiny is. Wherever I am I will leave my soul, work as I always do, and leave it in the hands of God.”