As the days left until the start of the 2010 World Cup shrink with increasing rapidity, Mexico's task of actually getting there grows more urgent. Five games are left between now and the end of qualifying, which doesn't leave the team nor coach Javier Aguirre much time to get Mexico out of harm's way and into a World Cup berth.
Crucial to that effort will be an Aug. 12 qualifier against the United States. Mexico will have its domestic players in camp for about 10 days and will count on its sizable European contingent for maybe a pair of training sessions. Aguirre, though, could have had an entire month and up to six meaningful matches on top of that as preparation for the Aug. 12 fixture if the team wasn't wasting a prime opportunity with the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Instead, Mexico is using a squad filled with youngsters, buoyed by a few experienced players in an effort to win its first Gold Cup since '03. Gerardo Torrado, Omar Bravo and late addition Guillermo Franco are among the few veterans along for the tournament.
Missing are key regulars such as Andrés Guardado, Carlos Salcido and Pável Pardo, players who haven't had much time to train under Aguirre. While the trio is experienced and talented, even such experienced players need time to understand what's being asked of them and to incorporate their talents and abilities under a new coach.
Complicating matters further is Aguirre's need to have a successful Gold Cup in order to alleviate some pressure and confidence concerns in Mexico. While Aguirre's job isn't in danger, his popularity could sink to new lows and the criticism could rain even harder from the ever-critical Mexican media with a poor showing.
Aguirre has said often that he isn't concerned with anything but how his team performs and progresses. Still, when he resorts to kicking players, it seems evident the pressure has been getting to the former Atlético Madrid boss.
In Mexico's second Gold Cup match, a 1-1 tie against Panama, Aguirre kicked Panama's Ricardo Phillips late in the second half. Whether it was intentional or not was difficult to discern. Aguirre's lunge at Phillips may have been frustration at the lack of conviction Mexico has shown under his tenure, something that vanished long before him after the '07 Copa América.
Just two years ago, Mexico was able to beat Brazil 2-0 and thrash Paraguay 6-0 in a major international tournament, and now El Tri is struggling struggles against the likes of Nicaragua and Panama, regional minnows who failed to advance even to the semifinals of the current World Cup qualifying cycle.
The team's lousy results and 20-month nosedive have resulted in a low level of faith from the Mexican media. And while Aguirre isn't solely responsible to the entire situation -- there is plenty of blame to go around, from former coaches Hugo Sánchez and Sven-Göran Eriksson -- he is caretaker of a team that gives little reason to confide in. Still, Aguirre is battling back and seemingly taking the criticism personally.
"I don't have any idea what to attribute the pessimism to," Aguirre said in a press conference before Thursday's game against Panama. "I have [been in charge for] two World Cup qualifiers, two friendlies and a Gold Cup game and I see polls and commentary, I see worries and [hear things like], 'Mexico is very worried and there is angst,' and who knows what else. It's not something I can control. Not with five games."
To restore faith in the national team, Mexico must defeat the U.S. If this team of youngsters scraps out success in the Gold Cup, it likely will matter little next month at the Estadio Azteca since the team that takes the field against Landon Donovan & Co. probably will be different than the one that has contested battles against Nicaragua and Panama.
But if this Gold Cup team makes a run at the final, perhaps it would restore faith in the league's ability to produce young talent. What it won't do is restore public faith that Mexico will be in South Africa next summer. Only a win over the U.S. will do that.
If the Americans can escape with a draw, Mexico's chances will be severely damaged. Should the U.S. do the unthinkable -- at least unfathomable to most Mexican supporters -- and beat Mexico in the Azteca, El Tri may as well cancel travel plans to South Africa and begin to map out a more effective route to the '14 World Cup.
Perhaps fielding their strongest possible teams in the '11 and '13 Gold Cups should be a key part of such an effort.