Help clear the path to first-team minutes for young Mexican players, or let the development process run its natural course? It's the question that was blown open by Tigres coach Ricardo Ferretti after the first round of 2018 Apertura matches last weekend.
A quick recap: Ferretti, perhaps the most respected coach in Liga MX, claimed that he can't guarantee that his club will fulfill Liga MX's new youngsters rule, which was implemented to ensure that clubs hand 765 minutes this Apertura to players born in 1997 or later.
Ferretti suggested that the rule would ensure that players debut but would not guarantee that they'd be able to go on to forge long careers in the game.
"Youngsters have to play because they are ready and because they have talent and are adequately trained," the 64-year-old Ferretti argued Monday in a news conference.
Ferretti's main concern, which has been largely missed, is that clubs might play an Under-21 player regularly this Apertura to fulfill the rule, which is all well and good. But then in the 2019 Apertura, that player who is now "Under-22" could be replaced by the next U21 and therefore left out. By 2020, that player will be a U23 and the 2019 beneficiary a U22 player, and both could be overlooked for the next U21. Ferretti has a strong point, but at least by getting some playing time, those players might attract interest elsewhere, be it a second-division club or a place in Central America (an increasing landing spot for Mexican players), Europe's lower leagues or Major League Soccer.
Perhaps Ferretti's words should be heeded and the rule tweaked, but in essence, this is a league vs. national team debate. By introducing the rule, Liga MX -- no doubt pressured by the Mexican federation and the nascent Mexican Footballers' Association -- is accepting that the clubs have some kind of responsibility toward the national team.
There have certainly been blockages in the system in recent years with regard to producing players. The federation has done a very good job of bringing through generations of players and sending them all over the world to various tournaments. Elite Mexican youth players are more ready than ever, but not enough are going on to get opportunities in Liga MX for that to translate into a deeper pool of quality talent from which the national team manager can pick. The quality of the second division in Mexico, and the lack of infrastructure down the chain, doesn't help in terms of sending players out on loan to gain experience.
In fact, it's one of the great ironies of the Mexican game that Liga MX clubs (as well as the FMF) continue to invest so much in their U13s, U15s, U17s and U20 teams, only to not hand opportunities to the final product.
Look at Tigres, for example. If every team in Liga MX had the same policy in bringing through young players as Ferretti's club, then virtually no Mexican young players would ever come through. Jesus Duenas is the only Tigres youth product who currently starts; he's now 29 and began his career at Salamanca. When it comes to Ferretti's statement, let's not forget that he is in charge of a team backed by big money, a ready-made fan base and the built-in pressure to win trophies.
The counter from the league's perspective would be that if every club had the quality of Tigres' squad, Liga MX would be vastly better than it is now. This is a golden period for the club but Tigres also won the Liga MX U20s title last season. Those interested in the national team want to see some of those players step up and play for Tigres' -- and other clubs' -- first team at some point.
It's a difficult balance. But the new rule, combined with each matchday squad having to have nine homegrown players and the new Copa MX regulations stipulating that every team must give U20 players 180 minutes of playing time per match, seem to be reasonable attempts at compromise.
It isn't like the rules are forcing a younger player to feature every game. That said, every club in Liga MX should be able to produce one U21 youth player each year capable of playing 11 or 12 full matches per regular season without damaging the overall quality too much. Perhaps some clubs might even catch on to Pachuca's lead and start making some real money from trying to develop players.
The main flaw in the rule is that the penalty for not complying is only three points, giving the likes of Ferretti's free-spending Tigres the chance to ignore it if they so wish as long as they rack up enough points early in the season. Other teams don't have the same luxury and are keen on handing their youth products opportunities.
Overall, for those youngsters making their way up chasing a dream, those working in youth soccer in Mexico and those interested in the full national team, the benefits of the new rule outweigh the negatives.