As August comes to a close, many of us will be lamenting the end of summer, but for Juan Carlos Osorio, fall can’t come soon enough.
It’s been a rough three months for the Mexico national team manager, as the Mexican national team endured two disappointing performances during the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, which consequently brought an avalanche of criticism by both fans and ex-professionals due to his rotational policy and questionable tactics.
As the team was disappointing on the field during Confederations Cup, the Mexican federation had to put out another fire off it as FIFA threatened action on the infamous “eh p**o!” chant.
As if that wasn’t enough, earlier this month, Rafael Marquez, Mexico’s captain and one of the most legendary players and figures in El Tri’s history, was sanctioned by the U.S. government over alleged ties to a drug trafficking organization. As a result, Osorio had no choice but to exclude him from the squad as he sifts through his pending legal battle.
When it rains, it pours.
On Friday, however, Mexico has a chance to win back some much-needed confidence and affection as it resumes World Cup qualifying at Estadio Azteca against Panama. After six matches, El Tri sits atop CONCACAF's Hexagonal with 14 points, remains undefeated and has only conceded two goals–with nine players accounting for the side's nine goals.
A victory over Los Canaleros secures a top-four place and at the very least, secures itself a berth in the last-chance intercontinental playoff. There are other scenarios that are even brighter for Osorio’s men: A win over Panama and a Honduras draw or loss to Trinidad and Tobago confirms a top-three place and, most importantly, a ticket to Russia–all before a tougher showdown against Costa Rica next week.
Honduras is away at Ato Bolton Stadium on Friday evening, 90 minutes before Mexico’s match, so Mexico should have a more specific understanding of what it can achieve.
It is worth remembering that this campaign has been a great ride for Mexico and the antithesis of the last World Cup campaign, where El Tri, which went through four managers in six weeks and six in four years, ended up salvaging fourth place and a playoff spot thanks to Graham Zusi’s stoppage-time goal against Panama.
Despite the great escape, Mexicans were clearly worried about the performances during the campaign to reach Brazil. Granted, pessimism and Mexican soccer have always been the perfect partners, but the concern was justified.
Novelist Juan Villoro even wrote in Mexican newspaper Reforma:
"In Dead Souls, [Nikolai] Gogol says that criminal acts can be redeemed but that nothing can save us from mediocrity. This is the case with the national team, which is on its way to the low level of hell that is the play-in [game]."
This time around, the journey has been much clearer and regardless of what has happened in the last three months, Mexican fans can’t deny the level of stability that has come with Osorio. His tactics and man management skills have brought a sense of stability during the World Cup run, and this has to be commended.
The Confederations Cup was disappointing, but it wasn’t catastrophic as losing to an outstanding German side confirmed the need to improve. As for the semifinal ouster at the Gold Cup? It was a test for the untested, where Osorio saw for himself who is good enough and who isn’t to join the final squad that will ultimately travel to Russia.
These were secondary summer tournaments, and in the grand scheme of things they were not really all that more important than friendlies. The real challenge, the real test, was a strong World Cup qualifying campaign, and Osorio has passed that with flying colors.
From a player development standpoint, there are plenty of positives, as Chucky Lozano’s bright start with PSV Eindhoven will make this squad even stronger as it faces elite opposition at the World Cup. The same can be said about Chicharito who has been the only shining light for his new club, scoring the only league goals so far for West Ham.
There is some concern for Guillermo Ochoa, as Mexico’s goalkeeper has not started well for Standard Liege, conceding eight goals in his last two matches. And Hector Moreno is still waiting to get on the pitch for Roma in an official match. There is, however, plenty of time, and hopefully he will get his minutes, whether it’s on loan or at the Stadio Olimpico.
As for Osorio, the end of the summer brings a great opportunity for El Tri to silence the critics and finally feel good about the future.
The ticket to Russia is within reach. Mexicans can almost taste it–and this time around, they won’t need San Zusi.