Mexico wins but loses captain Edson Álvarez to injury and tears, dampening its Copa América hope

Mexico's Edson Alvarez sits on the bench at the half-time during a Copa America Group B soccer match against Jamaica in Houston, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON — The mammoth scoreboards at NRG Stadium read Mexico 1, Jamaica 0, but they told an incomplete story. As Mexican players roamed a Copa América field, saluting fans, satisfied with three points, they were not quite whole. They eventually disappeared down a tunnel, the same one through which their captain rode on a cart one hour earlier. Edson Álvarez should have been leading these celebrations; instead, he had departed Mexico’s Copa opener in tears, injured.

He was, for roughly 27 minutes, the proud leader of a new El Tri era. But here, midway through the first half of the first game of his first major tournament as Mexico’s captain, Álvarez felt an awful feeling in the back of his left leg.

He’d been trying to chase down a Jamaica counterattack. Suddenly, he was on the ground in pain.

As he grimaced and writhed, with a forearm over his face, teammates gathered to hold him steady and console him.

They gathered because Álvarez, 26, who plays for West Ham in the English Premier League, is more than just a tidy midfielder. He’s “an important player,” as midfielder Luis Chavez said, yes; but he’s important “in the locker room as well,” head coach Jaime Lozano added.

So it was Álvarez — not Gerardo Arteaga, Mexico’s unlikely goalscorer; nor Julio González, the green goalkeeper who’d kept a clean sheet — who was the subject of the first question at Lozano’s postgame news conference.

His expected absence moving forward soured Saturday’s result, and undercut any Copa América hopes the win might have generated.

Players and Lozano said they did not yet know the severity of the injury. Lozano said that scans would reveal that over the next two days.

But they did not need medical imaging to read the pain that afflicted Álvarez. They saw his distraught face. They patted him on the head as he fought back tears. They watched him struggle to limp off the field, even with his body weight supported by two team staffers, one on each side. They came to offer their emotional support as he reached the sideline. They saw him loaded onto a stretcher, and carted away at halftime with his left leg outstretched and strapped down. A big bag of ice was wrapped tight to his hamstring.

And for 15 minutes after the injury, on the field, El Tri struggled to find a rhythm. Perhaps they were off-kilter tactically, with Luis Romo having replaced Álvarez; or perhaps they were simply neutralized by Jamaica; or perhaps they were shaken.

They recovered midway through the second half. In the 69th minute, a rising tide of chances finally yielded a goal, and a win that vaulted Mexico to the top of Group B, and toward the knockout rounds.

But Álvarez’s injury, assuming it is somewhat serious, felt similarly significant.

“He’s very important,” Lozano admitted. “And any coach who has had Edson would tell you the same thing.”

Álvarez is Mexico’s fulcrum, its most talented player, its tactical centerpiece. He is a versatile defensive midfielder who brought stability to a team that, over the past few years, has been anything but stable. He was the lone star from the 2018-2022 era retained by Lozano for this Copa América. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is gone. Forwards Raul Jimenez and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano were left off this roster. Álvarez, still only 26, was included and elevated.

He was promoted to captain, in part, because he is still so integral to any Mexico game model or system. “He understands the game really well,” Lozano said in Spanish. He can drop between two center backs to dictate possessions as a deep-lying playmaker or steadying passer. He can also sniff out counterattacks and win duels.

But he was also promoted because, “when he speaks, you listen,” Lozano said. He has a way with words, and a presence that can’t be replicated.

Other players, Lozano said, will be prepared for the soccer opportunities suddenly thrust upon them. But the injury, he admitted, “was a tough blow.”

They will wait and hope for good news in the coming days, but nobody sounded optimistic.

In the meantime, they’ll prepare for Venezuela on Wednesday. If they win, they could clinch a place in the quarterfinals. But without Álvarez, the quarterfinals — or, at most, the semis — are probably their ceiling.