- Mexico's first goal has been achieved, but for El Tri to realize its grander aspirations on the world stage, there's still some work to do before June's World Cup.
For Juan Carlos Osorio and the Mexican national team, the doors to Russia are now fully open. El Tri booked a ticket to the World Cup with three matches left to play in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal round, and although qualification wasn’t exactly a cakewalk (it required a hard-fought win in Columbus against the U.S. last November and a narrow 1-0 victory over Panama at Estadio Azteca) it was still a completely different experience from four years ago when the team barely scraped through the Hex and only made it to Brazil by beating New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff.
Regardless, the first part of the job is done and Mexico will be heading to its seventh consecutive World Cup.
After the win over Panama, which ultimately secured its spot, assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez confirmed the need to recharge and restructure, knowing full well that CONCACAF domination is one thing, but facing up to World Cup opposition is an even bigger mountain to climb.
“We are invited to the dance and we want to dance as well as possible,” he told the press. “A new stage starts now."
That new stage he is referring to is finding the remedy for the round-of-16 curse, as this is the stage at which El Tri has been knocked out in the past six World Cups. In order for Mexico to call the tournament a success, the team has to play at least five matches and make it to the quarterfinals. Anything less would be considered a failure or, at best, stagnation.
Naturally, a large part of this solution is dependent on the group draw and a healthy squad, but there are still many issues that Osorio can fix right now, as Mexico’s biggest issues are both tactically and mentally based.
Here’s what the Colombian manager and the entire squad must do in order to succeed in Russia.
Defensive composure and the need to improve against the counter
Mexican fans need to realize that as long as Osorio is in charge, El Tri’s biggest strengths are going forward and over-committing in the final third when in possession, but with this strategy comes Mexico’s Achilles’ heel: defending on the counter. This became very clear this past June when the team faced Germany in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup and El Tri conceded the first goal. In the fifth minute of play, Mexico lost possession in Germany’s half, and Joachim Low’s team pounced on the counter, opening the wide areas and exposing Mexico’s back line. The ball came in from the right side, and in less than 10 seconds Germany’s Leon Goretzka made it 1-0.
The same thing happened against Chile in that demoralizing 7-0 loss during the 2016 Copa America Centenario, where almost every goal was a result of a scattered defensive unit. It’s worth nothing that both these examples are not against CONCACAF teams, meaning that this can happen in the World Cup if the issue isn’t solved.
If Mexico wants to improve in Russia, then this must be a priority in training going forward. Osorio needs to find a way to stay true to his philosophy but at the same time develop a stronger defensive foundation.
With the ball, Mexico is an attractive team to watch, ready to commit and enter the box at any opportunity, but now El Tri needs to find an identity without it.
Rafael Marquez’s future
It’s imperative for the team to prepare for the World Cup without any unnecessary distractions, and Marquez’s current issues with the U.S. Treasury over alleged drug trafficking connections can only hurt the team.
A quick resolution in order to go ensure a stress-free training campaign is needed, as Mexico, a team that has to deal with overwhelming press coverage and criticism on a daily basis already, doesn’t need this on its plate. That might not be a realistic possibility, though.
Osorio has already expressed his wish to speak to Marquez in the future in order to hear his side of the story but he needs to be careful on making sure this situation doesn’t drag on for months, and, most importantly, that he makes a decision on the future of the legendary defender, whose status in the country goes well beyond captaining El Tri at four World Cups.
No one is denying the influence and respect that Marquez commands from his colleagues, but if El Tri is really honest about starting a new stage, then a decision on what to do with Marquez needs to happen sooner rather than later. Marquez, after all, will be 39 by the time the World Cup comes around, so it's worth wondering, from a player perspective, if it's worth risking a roster spot and other wild card variables for Marquez in the first place.
Key players in tricky situations
The value of Mexicans playing in Europe should not be underestimated as this experience can only help the national squad elevate in quality. Not only that but there is something to be said when it comes to understanding elite opposition from a player’s perspective. There are seven Mexican players officially assigned to European rosters for the Champions League: Hector Moreno (Roma); Miguel Layún, Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona (all Porto); Raul Gudiño (APOEL) and Raul Jimenez (Benfica).
Add in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez’s role with West Ham, Andres Guardado with Real Betis and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano’s rise with PSV Eindhoven and this only strengthens Mexico’s pedigree heading into Russia for next June.
That said, just being on a good team doesn't guarantee anything, and there are some El Tri regulars who find themselves in situations where playing time or environment is not presently ideal. Moreno is still waiting to feature for Roma in an official match. In a World Cup year, Moreno needs to be playing regularly, so the hope is that the Serie A club makes a quick decision on what to do with the defender, and if he is specifically being saved for European and Cup tournaments, then Mexico can only hope Roma goes on a good run.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Dos Santos brothers Giovani and Jonathan will most likely finish their club seasons at the end of October, as it looks like LA Galaxy, who are lagging behind in the Western Conference, will not be making the MLS playoffs.
This, once again, is problematic for Osorio as two influential players need to get playing time. Perhaps winter loans to clubs in Europe could help them maintain match fitness.
Giovani Dos Santos offers a certain level of versatility to the front line, while Jonathan, who was arguably Mexico’s best player during the Confederations Cup, is an important defensive midfielder, offering a much-needed anchor to Mexico’s often-erratic defending.
Mexico is a team with tremendous potential, one that can truly make a statement in Russia. Just like Costa Rica’s quarterfinal appearance in 2014, however, Osorio’s players must rely on what they’re good at, hope for a dose of good fortune and enforce a more disciplined defensive unit.
All of this is possible. The hope for Mexico is that it comes together next June.