Underachieving Mexico is down, but certainly not out
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Mexico is struggling. We know this because El Tri just lost a World Cup qualifier at home for the second time ever, and because coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre got fired a few hours after that, and because, on the eve of Tuesday's U.S.-Mexico showdown here (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas), Mexico now finds itself clinging to life for a berth in World Cup 2014 with just three qualifiers left to play.
The gory truth: Mexico has eight points from seven games and can thank its lucky stars that Panama (seven points) wet the bed at home Friday with a 0-0 tie against lowly 10-man Jamaica. That's right: Mexico is in a dogfight for fourth place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal with Panama, and whoever gets fourth will have the pleasure of a home-and-home playoff halfway around the world with New Zealand in November.
And yet, amid some of Mexico's darkest days, I would argue these three things: 1) It's in the U.S.' best interest for Mexico to recover; 2) Mexico will in fact make the World Cup; and 3) Mexico will do just fine in the World Cup, regardless of the mess El Tri is in right now.
Let's break it down:
1) It's in the U.S.' best interest for Mexico to recover. As much as some U.S. fans might be enjoying Mexico's futility right now, and as much as they'll celebrate a win over El Tri on Tuesday (and the World Cup berth that could come with it), the Stars and Stripes are better off with a strong Mexico around. Rivalries can't be good rivalries unless both teams are bringing something to the table, and for the U.S. to keep improving as a soccer nation it needs the stiffest competition possible in CONCACAF.
In recent years, the U.S.-Mexico rivalry has turned into the best international sports rivalry in North America, drawing huge TV audiences and unleashing passions on both sides of the border. For the rivalry to take the next step forward, it can't have Mexico continuing to be this horrid on the field. What's more, if Mexico were to miss the World Cup, it would be a hammer blow to Univision, the U.S. Spanish-language rights holder, and it wouldn't help English-language rights holder ESPN either.
2) Mexico will in fact make the World Cup. Good news, Mexico fans: Your team plays in CONCACAF! The dirty little secret of CONCACAF is that the region doesn't deserve its current 3.5 World Cup slots and probably should get no more than two. World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF is one of the most forgiving formats in world soccer, allowing you to mess up again and again and again (as Mexico has during this Hex) and still have a chance of advancing to the Big Show in Brazil.
If this was UEFA, Mexico would be out of the running already. Heck, if this was four years ago, El Tri would be facing a playoff against formidable Uruguay, but thanks to some backroom deal in a smoke-filled room in Zurich, Mexico would get New Zealand in the playoff this time around. And despite the respect that the Kiwis deserve, I'd much rather be playing New Zealand than Uruguay. The result: Mexico will stumble into Brazil as the last of the 32 teams to qualify.
3) Mexico will do just fine at the World Cup. Time and again we've seen it happen: A team struggles mightily in World Cup qualifying but manages to sneak in, and then things turn around completely at the World Cup itself. Brazil barely made it through qualifying for World Cup 2002, and then it won the whole thing in Japan. That same Uruguay team from four years ago had to go through the continental playoffs before reaching the semifinals at World Cup 2010. Even the U.S. women's team had to go through a continental playoff to make World Cup 2011, and despite being the last team to qualify the Americans went on to the final in Germany.
Long story short: It doesn't matter how you qualify for the World Cup as long as you qualify. This Mexican team has too much talent to play this poorly for very long. It was only 13 months ago that I considered Mexico one of the six top contenders to win World Cup 2014. Times have changed since then, but there's no reason Mexico can't qualify for Brazil and go even deeper in the tournament than its last two Round of 16 appearances.
Laugh at me now as I write all this, but you'll be remembering this column in early July next year.