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How Mexico got its groove back


June 6 was so long ago. On that night in San Salvador, a team wearing white, calling itself Mexico, went down to hosts El Salvador 2-1. The result slid Mexico into fifth place in the Hexagonal, and the possibility of missing out on South Africa seemed real.

Three months later, Mexico has returned in full force. El Tricolor not only finds itself in a spot to gain entry into its 14th World Cup, but the team is living up to its own lofty status.

Mexico has won four consecutive World Cup qualifiers, sits in second place in the Hexagonal and easily could wind up sitting atop the table when all the games have been played. Their swagger is back, their confidence is soaring and their dominance is in full effect.

How did this happen? How was Mexico able to go from a desperate fifth place to second in just four games? For the most part, the other teams in the Hexagonal have been consistent, but Mexico has gone from a mediocre team on the decline to a potent power on the rise.

From the man on the sidelines to the man in the middle, several factors have influenced El Tri's return to prominence. Here are the three biggest ones:

Sven-Göran Eriksson had impressive credentials when he took over for El Tri last summer: a two-time World Cup quarterfinalist and a Euro 2004 quarterfinalist with England and league champion with three different clubs in three different countries.

Certainly, the man knew what he was doing when he took over Mexico. But while Mexico had some important results with Eriksson at the helm, his tenure will go down as forgettable, ineffective and just plain awful.

Eriksson's teams didn't necessarily lack talent. Of course, he had Carlos Ochoa playing valuable minutes with the team but Eriksson relied on PávelPardo, Carlos Salcido, Oswaldo Sánchez and Rafael Márquez, strong players from previous eras. He also brought in Matías Vuoso, one of the most talented forwards in the Mexican league.

But Eriksson's teams were just going through the motions and played without much fire. Under the Swede, players drew confidence from their jersey, not from a belief in their own collective abilities.

When Javier Aguirre came in this past April, he had a lot of work to do. For the former Mexico coach in his second go-around, it wasn't as easy as flipping a switch. He did, after all, guide the team to its loss in El Salvador. And then there was the whole kicking incident during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, when Aguirre swatted at Panama's Ricardo Phillips during a group-stage game.

But Aguirre pulled the right strings, was able to use the Gold Cup as a proving ground for his young players and helped ignite a fire under the team. A penalty-kick victory over Costa Rica may have been the turning point for the team. Sure, the 5-0 rout of the U.S. was a historic whipping, but Mexico's confidence grew insurmountably once it was able to get into the final in the first place.

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The core of that squad was buoyed by veterans such as Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Ricardo Osorio and Salcido, and El Tri now had Aguirre's proven fingerprints on it.

There have been several important players who have done well for Mexico during this qualifying turnaround. Giovani dos Santos and Guillermo Franco in particular have scored important goals while Guillermo Ochoa has been in goal for qualifying wins over the U.S., Costa Rica and Honduras. But clearly, the heart and soul of this team is Blanco.

Major League Soccer fans have seen first-hand how influential and volatile Blanco can be. Mexican league fans have known for years that he's irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind. But few could have predicted that the 36-year-old could have played such a prominent role in such a short amount of time, particularly after having missed so much time over the last several years with Mexico.

Blanco scored the lone goal in El Salvador. He knifed through the Americans' defense last month at the Azteca, even though he wasn't on the field for the dramatic finale. But against Costa Rica and Honduras, Blanco elevated his game and was the best player on the field during both encounters.

Slow-moving forwards who play little to no defense aren't supposed to be able to dominate the competition like that, particularly against teams who had a lot at stake.

Now, Blanco's role in the Hexagonal this year isn't as dramatic as it was in 2001. After a long injury layoff that year, Blanco returned to score four clutch goals and guide Mexico to a 4-0-1 record down the stretch, willing El Tri into the '02 World Cup. This time around, he simply answered Aguirre's call when it came, and has responded with magnificent performances.

Still, Blanco looks capable of not only making Mexico's 2010 World Cup roster, but starting and playing a key role on the field.

While Mexico did many things to improve its own fate, what it had little influence in was the mind set and mentality of other regional teams. CONCACAF teams are, after all, CONCACAF teams. This region might be improving, but it will never be CONMEBOL, much less UEFA.

Since the 1930 World Cup (which, honestly, has no bearing on the modern game), only one CONCACAF nation has reached a quarterfinal of a World Cup that wasn't hosted by a CONCACAF country: the U.S. in '02. Mexico has never accomplished that feat. Costa Rica has never advanced past the first round. The U.S. is 0-8-1 in the three World Cups it has contested on European soil.

During this Hexagonal, Mexico is one of three teams that are 4-0 at home. Not coincidentally, those three teams make up the first three spots in the table as the U.S. and Honduras haven't dropped any points at home thus far. Road teams have struggled. Only Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. have been able to pull out road wins, and each has been limited to one road win out of four away games.

The margin of error is considerably wider in CONCACAF than it is in South America and Europe, where teams like Argentina and Portugal face very real chances of missing out on South Africa. Like Mexico, Argentina lost more than half its road games, but Mexico was able to dust itself off with one road win. Argentina could win in Uruguay on Oct. 14 and still not reach the World Cup. Portugal, meanwhile, has lost once in eight qualifiers and may not participate in next summer's World Cup.

Geography is certainly on Mexico's side, and until the rest of the region grows up, Mexico's margin for error will be wide enough to survive failures that other teams in other parts of the world can't.