'Charly' Rodriguez, 'JJ' Macias emerge as Mexico stars for 2020

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa's assessment of El Tri at the end of 2018 was stunning in its directness. The cold-blooded verbal assault from the veteran bemoaning the Mexican national team's lack of direction and vision after games in Argentina couldn't have been much more blunt.

The words represented a low point after losses and a call to action for the Mexican federation (FMF). Shortly after, the FMF agreed a deal to bring in Gerardo "Tata" Martino as the senior squad's manager.

How things have changed in the year since.

A total of 53 players suited up for El Tri, but although that is a lot, feels like not only is there a direction under Martino, but also a fresh generation of players that have stepped up with a degree of authority and belonging -- albeit mainly against CONCACAF opposition -- when wearing the Mexico shirt. The new batch of players look set to compete for spots both at the Olympics next summer and with the full national team on the road to Qatar 2022.

Here are seven Mexico internationals that have established themselves in 2019 and look set to maintain their places moving into next year.

Carlos 'Charly' Rodriguez | 22 | Midfielder | Monterrey

As 2018 turned into 2019, 20-year-old midfielder Rodriguez could only boast eight first division appearance and, while he did impress for Monterrey during them, there was little sense that he'd play 13 international games for El Tri this calendar year. In fact, no player featured in more games than him in 2019.

Given the speed of his ascent, it's not surprising that some big European names have been linked with Rodriguez, who did play for Toledo in Spain's third division in the 2017-18 season. The maturity, courage and sheer quality of his display for Monterrey against Liverpool in the Club World Cup hinted both that Rodriguez's talent ceiling is very high and that he has the temperament to play as the highest level.

Martino has taken a special liking to the technical midfielder, describing him as playing "as if he was 30." Rodriguez has often led the press from an advanced central midfield role with El Tri this year and he actually recovered the ball for Mexico more times (59) than any other player besides holding midfielder Edson Alvarez (67) and center-back Carlos Salcedo (65). And while he didn't score a goal and only made one assist, he did create more chances (22) than any other El Tri player.

Jose Juan 'JJ' Macias | 20 | Forward | Guadalajara

There's been debate for a few years over the lack of depth in the center-forward position behind Raul Jimenez and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. The discussion was valid. With Oribe Peralta retired from the international game and Alan Pulido never seemingly to fully convince, there was a lack of options.

Step in Macias. The 20-year-old -- who played the Apertura 2019 season with Leon on loan from Guadalajara -- is by no means the finished article, but from his first five international games in 2019, he's netted four goals. And that quality was replicated at Leon, where he scored 19 Liga MX goals in 38 matches to become the highest Mexican goal-scorer in the league during 2019.

Given Chicharito's current position with Mexico national team is less secure than his status as the national team's highest-ever goal-scorer, Macias may be the beneficiary in 2020. And it wouldn't even be totally surprising if one day Macias surpasses fellow Guadalajara native Hernandez at the top of El Tri's goal-scoring charts, even if Jimenez is likely to be in his way for the next few years.

Uriel Antuna | 22 | Midfielder | Guadalajara

Another meteoric riser. Antuna, 22, was already on the radar due to Juan Carlos Osorio calling him into camp in 2017 ahead of the 2018 World Cup and his attention-grabbing move from Santos Laguna to Manchester City. But before 2019, Antuna had started just seven league games in his whole career.

A loan move to LA Galaxy was a springboard to the national team, where Antuna took full advantage. The Torreon native only made the Gold Cup squad after injury forced out Jorge Sanchez and ended up starting five games and scoring four goals.

The sheer acceleration and speed of Antuna means he's set to continue to be an option for El Tri, although he'll have to make an impact at new club Chivas, where the pressure will be on much more than at the Galaxy.

Roberto Alvarado | 21 | Midfielder | Cruz Azul

It's been a smoother and more gradual path to the national team for 21-year-old Alvarado, who made his professional debut aged 15 and is already at his fourth professional club. It's easy to forget that he's still younger than anyone else on this list.

Like Antuna and Rodriguez, Alvarado also played 13 games in 2019 and while he hasn't necessarily grabbed headlines like the other two have, "El Piojo" has looked comfortable with the team, scoring three goals and assisting on two this year.

Jorge Sanchez | 22 | Right-back | Club America

An unfortunate injury ruled Sanchez out of the Gold Cup, but in the chances he has had shown the potential to become Mexico's regular right-back moving forward, even if he's regularly used on the left for Club America.

Sanchez, 22, needs to work on his raw defending ability, but possesses genuine pace, the stamina to get up and down the wing and is a threat moving forward.

Cristian Calderon | 22 | Full-back | Guadalajara

It's been a sensational year for 22-year-old Calderon, capped by a move to Chivas earlier this month.

Calderon helped Necaxa to two Liga MX playoffs and while he's only actually played four times under Martino, he's set to win many more caps. Ruthless in his defending, good in the air, blessed with pace and with an eye for both crossing and scoring, Calderon may already be Mexico's most complete full-back.

A change of club always bring unknowns, but Calderon is shaping up to become the long-term solution at left-back for El Tri, ahead of Gerardo Arteaga and even Jesus Gallardo.

Rodolfo Pizarro | 25 | Midfielder | Monterrey

Unlike a couple of others on this list, Pizarro has been known about for some time. The 25-year-old Monterrey playmaker made his Mexico debut in 2014 under Miguel Herrera, but in the years since didn't nail down his place, despite his obvious talent.

Thankfully for Pizarro, Martino is a big fan, with the Argentine coach even going as far to say last September that if he was pushed to picked a Mexican "The Best" award his choice would've been Pizarro.

Seven starts have come for Pizarro and he's looked the part cutting in off the left wing and moving between the lines to find space to unlock defenses. Only Raul Jimenez had more assists.

This year should've been the start of the most important World Cup cycle of Pizarro's life, but with competition for places fierce, there's no room for the Tamaulipas native to slack off. A European move would be ideal.