The story of a 19-year-old who comes up through the academy system of his hometown team and scores a goal in his first professional start sounds like a bad Hollywood cliche. Pitch that to a studio executive, and you’re likely to hear any number of other cliches, ranging from “we’ll be in touch” to “you’ll never work in this town again.”
It’s about a three-hour drive from Hollywood to Estadio Caliente, give or take. Antonio Nava lives at Estadio Caliente in the most literal sense of the word. Club Tijuana has an on-site hotel where Nava has lived since joining the team in 2014 as a member of the U14 setup. Nava was born in Tijuana but grew up in Redwood City, California, which is another five and a half hours north of Hollywood. He moved back to Tijuana so he could attend the Xolos Academy.
Nava excelled in the Xolos Academy system, earning call ups to Mexico’s U18 team in late 2016. In the 2016 Apertura, Xolos’ U17s won fourteen games out of seventeen with one draw and two losses. Nava had 12 goals, including a four goal performance against Querétaro. Xolos would go on to the U17 semifinals and lose to Chivas 5-2 on aggregate, with Nava scoring both goals for Tijuana. He’d move to the U20s the following season, and this year he started getting minutes for the first team in Copa MX play as well as a call up to the Mexico U20 team.
It was all building up to this past week for Nava. He knew that Franky Oviedo was going to call his number on Saturday. “Throughout the week we trained,” Nava told me after his debut. “The coaches talked to me and yeah, they gave me the opportunity and the confidence. I knew from the beginning.”
“My teammates and the coaches gave me a lot of confidence,” he said when asked about his preparation going into the week. “I wasn’t going (into the match) so nervous. I just went in and did my thing and thankfully everything turned out good. Not the result, but my performance.”
That confidence was also evident on the pitch, especially in the second half of the match. As if from the Hollywood script, Nava would score in the 53rd minute of his professional debut. Teammate Fabian Castillo tried to chip Morelia goalkeeper Sebastián Sosa, who flailed at the ball and slapped it up into the air. “The keeper (Sosa) came out, and it hit my teammate (Jesús Angulo). The ball landed on my foot (and) I took advantage. I took the shot, and it went in.”
The goal drew Tijuana level with Monarcas at 1-1, but eventually La Monarquia would prevail 3-2. Nava’s play stood out however. On a night where it would have been easy to pack it in Nava continued to hustle, hustling to track down loose balls and haranguing Morelia left winger Edison Flores into ineffectiveness. “I’ve just got to focus on doing good. It doesn’t matter if we’re going to make it (to the Liguilla) or not.”
In a press release following the match, Nava was quoted as saying “It means a lot to me and my family,” about his process through the youth system and his pro debut. “It’s about the team because there was a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work and I am thankful for the opportunity. Coach said he was proud of me and my teammates told me that I need to keep going and that there will be many more goals like that.”
Just like it would be scripted in Hollywood.