Diego Lainez is the type of player you can recall the time and place you saw him play live for the very first time.
The ball seems to be glued to his left foot when he dribbles, the opposition players smell danger and approach, often leaving space for teammates, and there is a grace about him that few players possess. He invites the spectator to imagine when he's on the ball, both in the immediate sense of where a play will end up, as well as just how high the 18-year-old's ceiling could be.
Lainez's promise at youth level was converted into a rounded performance for Club America on Saturday evening, with Lainez netting twice in his team's 3-1 win over Pachuca.
The first goal was an example of what Lainez is all about. He got the ball on the right, turned full-back Emanuel Garcia inside out, cut onto his favored left foot and guided a finish into the far corner. Not a bad goal to open your account in Liga MX. The second was equally well taken.
If we are honest, Lainez initially struggled with the jump up to the Club America first team -- he hadn't made an assist or scored in his first 1,161 minutes of Liga MX play prior to Saturday. That's perhaps natural given his age, but the performance against Pachuca reinforced the belief that Lainez will be an important player for Mexico in the not-too-distant future. It also looks like right wing -- as opposed to on the left where he usually plays -- could be Lainez's best position, although he still needs to work hard on improving his right foot.
Having just turned 18 in June, the prospect of a move abroad is now at least a possibility. Certainly, European clubs are aware of him: Lainez was recently named best player at the 2018 Toulon Tournament, an award previously won by the likes of James Rodriguez, Javier Mascherano, Alan Shearer, Rui Costa and Thierry Henry. But here's the really outstanding thing: the then 17-year-old Lainez was also one of the youngest players at the Under-21 tournament!
There are two issues surrounding Lainez's immediate future. The first is whether he'll get regular minutes at Club America. Performances like that of Saturday certainly won't hurt, and the new Liga MX youngsters' rule should also help his case, but Ecuador right winger Renato Ibarra was ruled out last Saturday and Paraguayan Cecilio Dominguez and new signing Cristian Insaurralde will all be vying for places along the forward line in coming weeks.
The second is whether Club America would let him go if a good opportunity arose. One of the recent trends in the Mexican game is for some of the most talented young players -- Rodolfo Pizarro, Orbelin Pineda, Jesus Gallardo -- to move within Liga MX and not abroad. That's unlikely in the case of Lainez, but given the inflated prices of the Mexican domestic market, Lainez's price tag may be out of reach for the type of developmental club in the Netherlands, Spain or France that would be good for him.
Wherever he plays, the key for Lainez now is to be getting first-team games. Ideally, it would be under a more progressive coach than Miguel Herrera, with someone more tuned in to the developmental methodology employed at the top clubs.
The worry is that Lainez stays at Club America, where he has recently signed a three-year contract, doesn't play much, gets distracted by other concerns and settles for something less in his career than his talent demands.
Early signs suggest the Villahermosa, Tabasco native does have his feet on the ground, however. He comes across well in interviews, gave a speech in English in front of the FIFA congress in Moscow ahead of the 2026 World Cup host announcement and faced the cameras after returning from El Tri's recent failure at the Central American and Caribbean Games.
There are often complaints in Mexico about the press "inflando" (literally "inflating," but read "hyping") young Mexican players and somehow spoiling them. But frankly, any player hoping to make it to the top has to deal with being the center of attention, and Lainez will certainly need to stay humble. That's just the reality of the business, and it's not like Lainez's skill set is only obvious to the trained eye.
Short-term, Herrera will have to make a decision on whether to give Lainez minutes away at Dorados in the Copa MX on Tuesday and then in Estadio Azteca versus Monterrey next Saturday. Over the longer-term, Lainez is potentially the face of the generation of Mexican national team players for the 2026 World Cup.
It's a bold statement and one that should accompany only a generational talent, which Lainez looks to be for Mexico.