Luis Bueno
Friday July 31st, 2009

Mexico has put its cards on the table. There are less than two weeks until the most important game in CONCACAF this year, as El Tri gets set to host the U.S. in World Cup qualifying on Aug. 12.

After its emboldening 5-0 rout of the Americans at the Gold Cup final, Mexico has leaned heavily on that squad in naming its roster vs. the U.S. at the Estadio Azteca. Save for the game-day roster and starting lineup, there are no secrets anymore. Here's what we have, seems to be the message Mexico sent the Americans, Bring it.

But what does Mexico truly have? Its strongest possible roster? That's debatable. Healthy and hungry players, ready to fight for country and honor in mighty Azteca? Hungry maybe, but health is a concern. A mix of youth and experience? Sure, but what roster doesn't fall into that category?

Mexico turned the corner in the Gold Cup, winning its first confederation championship since 2003, but qualifying remains a mystery. Few could have predicted Mexico's Gold Cup team could have ripped apart the U.S. with ease and few can foresee the future and figure out how Mexico will look like on Aug. 12. The individual pieces offer only one part of the entire equation. Here's a breakdown of the roster

The roster features plenty of talent. Andrés Guardado, Carlos Salcido and Ricardo Osorio have been unquestionable starters for a while, and each is an important cog in Mexico's success, no matter the manager.

Giovani dos Santos seems to have reached that group, finally. The 20-year-old phenom had a breakthrough performance in the Gold Cup and is starting to realize his can't-miss potential from his days as a scrawny teenager in the Barcelona youth system.

Dos Santos was dangerous throughout the Gold Cup, as he was clearly Mexico's go-to player. The only challenge now is that he'll face a much stronger defense. There are no Oguchi Onyewus or Jonathan Spectors on Haiti or Nicaragua, after all.

Carlos Vela flashed his own potential in the Gold Cup final as well. His inclusion in the match at halftime helped turn the game around as the U.S. defense had no answers for dos Santos' partner in crime from Mexico's run to the '05 Under-17 World Cup title. Perhaps the Gold Cup would have been Vela's chance to shine had he not injured himself in the opening match. As it stands, he gained respect for his performance in the final. Whether that's enough to thrust him into the starting lineup in Mexico's biggest game of the year remains to be seen. But at the very worst, Javier Aguirre has himself a super-sub.

The health situations regarding Rafael Márquez and Nery Castillo. While both are important, impact players when they're healthy, there are questions surrounding each of the two.

Márquez blew out his knee in the Champions League semifinal against Chelsea and was unable to participate in season-ending matches for Barcelona, including the final. He has had no activity with Barça in the preseason. The Catalan club's upcoming tour of the U.S. will be important and telling. If Márquez sees action for Barcelona, he could play against the U.S.

As far as Castillo, the former Olympiakos standout now has joined yet another club as Shakhtar Donetsk loaned him out to Ukrainian rival Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Castillo -- who had a public meltdown against the media before Mexico's World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica -- might have some emotional questions. Add to that an unstable club situation, and his performance is also a big question mark.

What happened to Pável Pardo? The former Stuttgart standout was one of the most consistent performers under Sven-Göran Eriksson and Hugo Sánchez. In fact, Pardo has been a mainstay since Aguirre ended his first go-around as Mexico coach in '02. Aguirre severed ties with Pardo in '01, but the hatchet seemingly was buried since the Club América captain played under Aguirre in World Cup qualifying matches in June.

This time, however, a healthy Pardo didn't make Aguirre's cut. And that's a debatable call -- Pardo's set-piece ability has proven dangerous against any opponent Mexico faces.

Other notable omissions should be no surprises as Antonio "Zinha" Naelson, Omar Bravo and Fernando Arce apparently have played their last games for Mexico for the foreseeable future.

Guillermo Ochoa appears to have taken over in goal on a full-time basis as he and perennial Jesús Corona were the only two keepers called in to the team. But in Ochoa, Mexico has a keeper who wasn't often tested during the Gold Cup. He made a great save of a Froylán Ledezma shot in the semifinals against Costa Rica, but the U.S. barely tested him. In fact, the U.S. had a pair of strong chances that missed: Stuart Holden fired a 20-yarder just wide and Robbie Rogers sailed a close-range shot over the crossbar.

Can Ochoa withstand the Americans' shots in the Azteca? Aguirre seems to believe so, as he left venerable veteran Óscar Pérez off the list. It's Ochoa's turn in the spotlight, and he'll have to live up to the gigantic expectations many have placed on him for quite some time.

If Mexico's Gold Cup performance can carry over into the Azteca. A full dozen of Mexico's 20-man roster helped El Tri win the Gold Cup. Stars such as Ochoa, Vela and dos Santos are joined by veterans Gerardo Torrado and Alberto Medina, but also previously untested internationals Efraín Juárez, Miguel Sabah and Israel Castro also made the cut.

Talent aside, if Aguirre can help translate the success and confidence the Gold Cup squad carried out, Mexico will be in a fine position for the remainder of the Hexagonal.

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