The Apertura started rough. Even if Pumas dominated Monterrey this past Sunday to earn the final playoff spot in the Liga MX, it was a season full of ups and downs. A challenging season isn’t uncommon for Pumas in recent years. From an outsider’s view, a once healthy and vibrant organization that has produced some of Mexico’s best talent has gone cold and stagnant. That’s certainly not the case, however, if you place UNAM’s results head to head among other Liga MX clubs over the last few years.
From a title perspective, Pumas are one of Mexico’s top clubs. Since the 2009 season, Pumas have won two championships, although the most recent is a distant three years ago. Only Monterrey and Leon have won two championships during that time period, while five other clubs have one each.
An issue that has been a challenge, however, has been keeping with the rich tradition of the Pumas organization around their academy being the base of it’s club, and the team has seen a decline of younger players breaking into the first team. It’s also well documented the organization has struggled to keep up with some of their counterparts on youth development and hasn’t been able to produce international stars that have made an impact on the Mexican National Team.
In the 2014 Apertura, one Pumas player has managed to emerge from the group and provided a glimmer of hope. If consistency sets in, he could be rewarded with not only reviving Pumas and the belief in the club’s academy, but earning a chance to represent Mexico in 2015.
That player is Eduardo ‘Lalo’ Herrera, a 26-year old forward that rose through the ranks of Club Universidad’s famous cantera. And this canterano is having a career year. After impressing in the Copa MX – Mexico’s domestic cup tournament – he earned a starting spot in league play and has amassed 12 goals across all competitions.
In an exclusive interview with Pumas English, Herrera discusses his growth through the Pumas organization, what he learned from his loan to Santos Laguna, provides thoughts on the multiple coaching changes and how it impacts the cantera, and talks about his aspirations to represent his country.
“I’m enjoying this stage [of my career]. It’s a stage that all dream of reaching.”
“It’s been a change for the good,” Herrera said about the Apertura. “Considering how the tournament started, we’ve gone from less to more.
Herrera admitted he certainly achieved objectives he set for himself, considering the striker contributed more than 36% of the team’s goals this season.
“I’m enjoying this stage [of my career],” Herrera admits. “It’s a stage that all dream of reaching.”
Herrera has been in the Pumas academy since 2007, and has appeared in more than 230 games across all tournaments and age groups since he joined the organization. Most of his time was spent with the now defunct Pumas Morelos, an affiliate that competed in the Primera Division A, Mexico’s second division of soccer. Pumas Morelos dissolved in November of 2012, after then Sporting Vice President Alberto Garcia Apse decided to focus resources on the U-20 and U-17 squads.
“It’s the organization that formed me, and gave me the opportunity to play soccer,” Herrera says of Pumas. “I’ll always be grateful for that.”
As for his struggles to get to the spot he’s in now, he recalls the difficult path he’s had to take.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” he admits. “We go through different stages in the academy, and there is alot of competition.”
Much of Herrera’s struggle to break into the first team – despite his performances – can be attributed to the instability of the club’s vision due to constant change. Herrera made his debut in 2011 under Guillermo Vazquez, a coach who gave opportunities to many young players, but after Vazquez left the club that same year, the manager position became a revolving door.
“When new trainers come in, we don’t fall into their plans,” Herrera says is one of the biggest challenges around administration changes. “Some decide to bring in reinforcements in certain positions, and we [players] have to adapt to those changes.”
Part of those changes, or adapting to the new vision of the club can see players heading elsewhere – something that isn’t too common among quality players growing up in Club Universidad’s system. Last year, that situation became a reality for Herrera, who was loaned to Santos Laguna for an opportunity at more playing time and a fresh start.
“It’s a great club; I left with a great impression of what they’re doing there,” he says of Santos, the team Pumas eliminated from playoff contention after Sunday’s win.
The competition was tough, and Herrera stressed he was competing with players of high quality, something that contributes to their results over the years. “The important thing with Santos is we were always playing finals. In both tournaments [Apertura and Clausura], we were in the semifinals, and we made the second round of the [Copa] Libertadores.”
“Those experiences helped me,” Herrera stressed.
Upon his return to Pumas, Herrera found himself in a familiar place – on the bench, and fighting for more playing time under head coach Jose Luis Trejo.
Herrera took advantage of the little time he was given, getting starts with many of the younger academy players in the Copa MX. After scoring four goals in his first three games, he made many take notice. Unfortunately, the only person that mattered – Trejo – wasn’t convinced and he made little headway until Guillermo Vazquez returned and took over head coaching duties prior to Pumas’ Week 6 game against Club Tijuana.
Vazquez inserted Herrera, who was riding a wave of confidence, directly into the starting lineup. He didn’t disappoint, scoring the club’s only goal in a 1-1 draw.
Herrera has appeared to shine under Vazquez’ leadership, and he’s hoping that his return, combined with the hiring of new Sporting Vice President Antonio Sancho, will give Pumas a fresh start and a chance to set things back on the right path.
“It would be ideal to have a project without [so] many changes,” Herrera says. “I think with Tono and Memo’s arrival, the situation will stabilize [a lot] and it will help the organization and the team.”
Only time will tell how those changes will impact the club long term, but for now, Pumas appear to be leaving their poor results behind, having lost only a single game since Vazquez’ return.
As for Herrera himself, he’s set some lofty goals for the near future.
“It’s important to me to be one of the top goalscorers for the club, and to win titles,” Herrera says.
With his two goals on Sunday, Herrera finishes the Apertura with eight goals, tied with Club America and Mexico striker Oribe Peralta for most goals scored by a Mexican born player. While some may overlook Herrera in regards to national team conversation, the one person that matters has taken notice.
“Without a doubt, it’s a clear objective I have [to play for the Mexican National Team.”
Earlier this season, Mexican National Team head coach Miguel Herrera made a special trip to Estadio Olimpico Universitario to get a first hand look at the Pumas forward. He took in Week 10’s match against Jaguares de Chiapas; a game where Herrera scored. The coach also complimented Herrera and his overall performances in the Apertura in a press conference after Mexico’s October 12 win against Panama, leading many to believe the Pumas striker could be called into an upcoming camp.
While he wasn’t included on the roster for Mexico’s most recent friendlies in November, Herrera is well aware that Mexico competes in two tournaments next year, something that gives him an opportunity to accomplish a dream.
“Without a doubt, it’s a clear objective I have,” Herrera says about earning a call-up to the Mexican National Team. “The possibility exists next year because of the two tournaments – Copa America and the Gold Cup. It’s something that keeps me working hard, day after day, and to be ready for that dream and challenge to represent my country.”
With a number of striker options at Mexico’s disposal, Herrera has an idea what it’ll take to keep Miguel Herrera’s attention.
“Continue with good performances, and scoring goals,” he said. “If a Mexican player can score goals in a big club like Pumas, they’ll turn around and look at you.”
“If I continue on that path, it’ll surely happen soon.”