It’s an exciting week for the Mexico national team, manager Juan Carlos Osorio and their fans as they all anxiously await Friday’s World Cup draw to see who will go up against El Tri in the group stage in next summer’s tournament in Russia.
Mexico, the highest-seeded CONCACAF team according to the FIFA rankings, is in pot two for the draw and will avoid teams like Spain, Uruguay and Colombia, but it could face other tournament favorites such as Germany, France, Argentina and even Brazil for a second straight World Cup (in 2014 it played against the host and faced Croatia and Cameroon in the opening stage). The hope for many, especially Osorio, is that the draw is kind to them and his team even envisions winning the group, an accomplishment last achieved in 2002.
But as the nation calculates, randomizes and breaks down possible group stage scenarios, there is another issue of importance: What will Mexico’s squad look like for the World Cup?
Before we break down the potential roster, it’s important to understand that for Osorio, playing in Europe is a huge advantage, one that not only challenges Mexican talent at a high level, but also prepares players for tougher competition.
“For a footballer coming in to Europe is the best way to progress and to consolidate himself as a top player,” said Osorio, speaking exclusively to Planet Fútbol TV. “I was speaking recently to Thierry Henry, now assistant coach with Belgium, and we had a good discussion. At the end we concluded that the best way to improve (as a player) is through competition. So it’s important that the players compete in Europe, week-in, week-out against the best. And the second best thing is to train with the best, so when you are in a good club you compete on Sundays, but you also compete on a daily basis against your own teammates, so you will eventually get used on competing at that level and you will improve. So it’s very important that Mexico can put two or three, four or five players in Europe.”
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The last point about training with your teammates should be remembered when we analyze the state of players such as Porto’s Diego Reyes and Miguel Layun or Benfica’s Raul Jimenez and Roma’s Hector Moreno. All of them are currently struggling with minutes with their respective clubs but featured for Mexico in the last month’s thrilling 3-3 friendly against Belgium.
Osorio rates the quality of European football so much that for him, just the fact that they’re training in high competition could be reason enough for them to be selected for Russia as opposed to a bubble player who is starting and doing well in Liga MX. But due to the elevation of quality in Mexico’s domestic league, there are many players who could still make a name for themselves between now and the World Cup.
Then there are those who are playing in Europe and excelling. Case in point: Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, who netted his 10th goal of the season with PSV Eindhoven last weekend to become the Dutch league's top scorer thus far.
Against Belgium, he was electric, as he mirrored Romelu Lukaku’s performance with a brace and solidified his role for El Tri. If he continues to perform for PSV and stays fit, Lozano can be a game-changer for Mexico. He is one to watch out for in Russia, and here are 22 others who are in position to join him as of now:
Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liege), Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca)
Ochoa’s time with Standard Liege has really picked up since the beginning of the season and it would take a monumental effort by Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul) or Alfredo Talavera (Toluca) to take his starting spot at this point. A good performance against Poland earlier this month and more to come for 2018, however, should solidify Corona’s No. 2 spot, while Talavera, who is recuperating from surgery due to major ligament damage, should be back by the time the league’s Clausura tournament comes around. If there is a setback, look for Chivas’s Rodolfo Cota to possibly take over the third spot. Osorio is familiar with the 30-year-old, as he went to the Confederations Cup.
Hector Moreno (Roma), Diego Reyes (Porto), Miguel Layun (Porto), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Nestor Araujo (Santos Laguna), Jesus Gallardo (Pumas), Edson Alvarez (America), Hugo Ayala (Tigres)
This is all about versatility and the many different positions these defenders can cover. Players like Gallardo and Layun provide defensive and offensive creativity on the left-hand side, as they are able to play left back and wing. Layun, if needed, can play on both flanks. Salcedo plays as a center back for Frankfurt, and did so against Poland, but against Belgium he went out wide. Reyes is also a choice for defensive midfielder, while Araujo and Ayala offer some stability at the back. Ayala played well against Poland, showing a level of experience and composure, which is why he might be included, but look out for Monterrey’s Cesar Montes for a possible call-up. The 20-year-old has been exceptional for Monterrey, which finished first in Liga MX’s Apertura regular season.
The other issue is Rafael Marquez, who is hoping to play for–and captain–Mexico in a fifth World Cup. As of right now, the 38-year-old can’t be included due to the sanctions against him by the U.S. government for his alleged connections to a drug kingpin. He is not allowed to travel to the U.S., and his international status is still in question, but if this is resolved before next summer, then the opportunity for him to come in will arise. His fitness would not be an issue, as he is already allowed to play for his club, Atlas. Osorio has mentioned he is willing to leave the door open for him, so only time will tell.
Hector Herrera (Porto), Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Marco Fabian (Eintracht Franfurt), Jurgen Damm (Tigres), Javier Aquino (Tigres)
The midfield is built around the architect, Guardado. Everything good that happens from a creative perspective includes him in some way, and he would be the perfect leader to replace Marquez and don the armband. A big talking point is Fabian’s injury, as he had surgery in August due to lower back problems. His return is scheduled for early January, but the issue here is for him to get back to a high level of fitness and form in time for the summer. Osorio is a big fan of Damm, who offers versatility as he can play out wide and higher up. Aquino is the final piece. He started against Poland and was used as a forward as opposed to his usual role as a winger. Again, it is this type of flexibility that can only play in his favor.
Javier Hernandez (West Ham), Hirving Lozano (PSV), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad; LAFC in January), Jesus Manuel Corona (Porto), Raul Jimenez (Benfica), Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
This is where this is bound to be some controversy. Oribe Peralta, the decorated 33-year-old forward, doesn’t have a place, and it’s for the same reason that has been discussed throughout: Osorio is keen on flexibility and Peralta, as good as he is, doesn’t offer anything more than a central threat. Mexico’s creativity is mainly created by wingers, and a player like Aquino can offer more options as a wide player and a forward, as seen against Poland.
There is a chance that Peralta could come in at the expense of Giovani dos Santos, who is also living dangerously and could perhaps miss out on Russia. His time with the LA Galaxy has not really done much to elevate his game. The beginning of 2018 will be incredibly important for Vela, as he leaves Real Sociedad and joins MLS expansion team LAFC. How he adapts to life in North America will be a big factor moving forward.