On Thursday, Mexico head coach Juan Carlos Osorio announced his 23-man roster for El Tri's first test of 2018, a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina next week in San Antonio.
The match presents a unique opportunity for bit-role players, as it may be their only chance to make their case for further inclusion with an aim on making the World Cup squad. Osorio’s roster is made up entirely of Liga MX and MLS players, as this friendly is not scheduled on an official FIFA international date. This match, therefore, is the perfect audition for those who are on the outside looking in.
One notable name includes Jonathan Gonzalez, the 18-year-old Monterrey midfielder at the center of plenty of debate in U.S. soccer circles. He was selected one day after FIFA approved his one-time switch from the USA to Mexico.
Three MLS-based players in the mix are Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos from the LA Galaxy and Carlos Vela from LAFC. They're out of season and just getting into their preseason routines, but that's not enough to omit them and prevent Osorio from getting a close look at their progress.
There was no room for Club America’s Oribe Peralta or Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jesus Corona. Both Osorio and the players’ respective clubs came to an agreement that they will be rested for this exhibition, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Peralta becomes an afterthought for Osorio, given his age and lack of versatility. The 34-year-old is a legendary player, especially among America fans, but for Osorio, domestic reputation may not be as important as roster and tactical flexibility.
So given the 23 players called in by Osorio for this one-off friendly, let's break down the roster in three groups: Who should already feel good about his World Cup standing, who could boost his stock with a strong showing and who has plenty of ground to make up to pip another touted player to a spot on the plane to Russia:
Should be Russia-bound
As previously mentioned, Osorio’s squad for this friendly is a combination of North America-based players, and there are many Europe-based players who are locks for the final World Cup roster (Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado and Hirving Lozano among them). But in looking at the specific selection available this week, we have to take into consideration behind the manager’s thinking and how his mind operates. Osorio, above all else, focuses on two factors: stability and versatility, and unless you offer a lot to the table with your unique skill set (Raul Jimenez’s aerial threat for example) the chances of you making the squad drop significantly.
So who, on this roster, matches that criteria? Defenders such as Nestor Araujo (Santos Laguna) and Hugo Ayala (Tigres) offer consistency, while in the midfield, Tigres’ Jurgen Damm–an Osorio favorite–provides an option both on the wing or higher up the field. The same can be said of his teammate, Javier Aquino, who toes the line of wide player and support striker. In a friendly against Poland last year, for example, Aquino started as a forward. His versatility ultimately may be the reason why Peralta gets left out.
From MLS, smart money would be on brothers Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos booking their tickets to Russia, as well as LAFC’s Carlos Vela. Despite the fact that they’re in the first week of preseason, it’s their international experience and potential that appeals to Osorio. All should make it to the World Cup barring injuries or a serious dip in performance.
Players in need of a strong camp and match
As Mexico prepares to play Germany, Sweden and South Korea in Group F, Osorio has to prioritize one of Mexico’s biggest issues, which is defending against the counter.
Last summer at the Confederations Cup, Osorio’s team fell victim to Germany’s quick decisions in transition–and that was Germany at not even close to full strength. Things, consequently, are about to get a lot of tougher when Joachim Low brings in his full A team. Sweden, equally, can cause similar issues as it showed against Italy in UEFA's World Cup qualifying playoffs. With all this said, there are some players in this roster who have an outside chance, but must show Osorio a flawless performance. Monterrey’s Cesar Montes is an exceptionally talented defender, and given the fact that Rafael Marquez is not currently under consideration given his legal issues, a strong showing could help his chances.
America’s Edson Alvarez, who had a great Gold Cup last year, is probably closer to Russia than we think, given the need for a dependable right back. The same can be said on the other side for Pumas’ Jesus Gallardo, who, along with Layun, can play anywhere along the left-hand side. Chivas teammates Orbelin Pineda and Alan Pulido are trying to push their way back into consideration after a disappointing 2017 Apertura. Their teammate and gifted midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, however is causing more noise and could be the most likely of this group to get a World Cup call, as his overall game has been improving season after season.
In goal, Rodolfo Cota was taken to the Confederations Cup but didn't play, but a quality showing here could vault him into the third GK conversation.
The ultimate question for all these players, though is will they be able to do enough to supplant European-based talent?
The long shots
Osorio’s doubts for these specific players all stem from one simple reason. The manager holds playing in Europe in such high regard that bit-role players in Liga MX or MLS need to have an-almost perfect camp or game against Bosnia in order to even be considered. Age is also factor here. Enter Jonathan Gonzalez, who at 18 was one of the best midfielders in the 2017 Apertura.
Gonzalez is clearly a talent, and Mexico landing his allegiance is a dual-national coup for El Tri's future, but can he push higher up the pitch and become a threat in the final third, and can he carve his own way in an already crowded area on Mexico's depth chart? It might be tough to convince Osorio that he deserves a spot ahead of Hector Herrera or Eintracht Frankfurt’s Marco Fabian, who is back to full training after a long injury spell and is reportedly ready to join the first team in a few weeks.
Other first call-ups go to Pachuca midfielder Victor Guzman and Tijuana goalkeeper Gibran Lajud. The former is as versatile as they come, able to play as a defensive midfielder, winger, central midfielder and even striker, which is music to Osorio’s ears. But given his lack of international experience, his multi-purpose talents may not be enough. He'll be one to watch in the next few days.
All in all, these players are really here for Osorio to get another look at his player pool and for Mexico fans to what the future holds.
After the roster announcement, Osorio commented on the selection and Mexico's chances to go far in this summer's World Cup.
“Historically, soccer has shown that anyone can surprise, compete and win a high-level tournament,” he said on Thursday to the press. “Why can’t it be us?”
When it comes to making the final roster, these 23 players will be asking the exact same thing.
Mexico's full squad vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
GOALKEEPERS: Rodolfo Cota (Chivas), Gibran Lajud (Tijuana), Jonathan Orozco (Santos Laguna)
DEFENDERS: Oswaldo Alanis (Chivas), Nestor Araujo (Santos Laguna), Hugo Ayala (Tigres), Cesar Montes (Monterrey), Luis Rodriguez (Tigres), Edson Alvarez (Club America)
MIDFIELDERS: Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Jonathan Gonzalez (Monterrey), Jesus Gallardo (Pumas), Victor Guzman (Pachuca), Jorge Hernandez (Pachuca), Orbelin Pineda (Chivas), Jurgen Damm (Tigres), Rodolfo Pizarro (Chivas)
FORWARDS: Javier Aquino (Tigres), Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Elias Hernandez (Leon), Henry Martin (Club America), Alan Pulido (Chivas), Carlos Vela (LAFC)