In order to prepare for Iceland and Croatia–two opponents that essentially kick-start Mexico’s preparations for the World Cup–Juan Carlos Osorio spent close to a month in Europe. The point of the trip? To garner as much knowledge from some of the best soccer minds in European football, specifically those who know exactly what is needed to beat elite competition under the sport’s biggest tournament.
Osorio took time to meet with the likes of Louis Van Gaal, whose run to the semifinals with the Netherlands in 2014 included a 2-1 win against Mexico in the round of 16, to LVG's compatriot, Guus Hiddink, who took the Netherlands (1998) and South Korea (2002) to fourth-place finishes as well as leading Australia to the knockout stage in 2006.
Osorio, ever the methodical manager who deeply believes in the value of one-on-one meetings with his players, also used this time to meet up with several European-based stars such as Sevilla’s Miguel Layún and Real Betis’ Andrés Guardado.
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All this traveling and homework leads up to the beginning of Mexico's quest to succeed at the World Cup and finally get beyond the round of 16 for the first time since 1986. Iceland and Croatia, therefore, are perfect tests, filled with talent, creative midfielders and organized units that can imitate some of the obstacles El Tri will face in a difficult Group F in Russia.
Iceland plays the role of Sweden (a compact, organized team with a mix of will and talent) while Croatia, blessed with players such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić, will challenge Mexico’s biggest weakness: defending the counterattack and reacting rapidly in transition.
But aside from strategy against European opposition, these matches are also about individual players and what they can do in order to secure their places for the summer.
It would be fair to say that certain players like Layun, Guardado, Carlos Vela, Hector Herrera, Javier Hernandez and other regulars–barring any injuries or setbacks, of course–should not be worried, as their tickets to Russia are all but confirmed.
But for other names, these matches are a chance to impress and show Osorio that they belong in the final 23-man roster. Given the fact that Javier Aquino, Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos and Jurgen Damm are all out with injuries, the opportunity for fringe players is that much greater.
Here are three Mexico players to watch out for in this international window, ones who have the most to gain, and potentially lose, from these upcoming friendlies taking place in the United States:
Rodolfo Pizarro, Chivas, MF/F
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Chivas's Rodolfo Pizarro is the most gifted Mexican player in Liga MX, and the 24-year-old is attracting interest from European clubs. Not only does he see the pitch better than most, the midfielder/false nine has an eye for goal, and fills a major requirement for Osorio: versatility.
Against Bosnia in January, with less than 20 minutes remaining, Pizarro came in to replace Henry Martin and showed a lot of promise as a false nine and support striker, able to show his depth and ability to penetrate the final third and create opportunities for other players.
If Giovani Dos Santos doesn’t go to Russia, you’ll know who took his place.
WATCH: Univision's Iris Cisneros on Mexico's World Cup chances
Omar Govea, Royal, Excel Mouscron, MF
What a journey this young man has gone through, where much of his soccer education was attained on his days at Club America’s youth system. Eventually, he moved to Portugal, where he featured regularly with Porto’s B team for two years before going on loan to Belgium side Royal Excel Mouscron.
Govea, who turned 22 in January, is a smart, hard-working midfielder, in the same mold as his idol, Hector Herrera, and the hope is that he joins his teammate for Russia. After Govea impressed last year, Osorio selected him and gave him 16 minutes against Poland last November, and the manager also wanted him for the Bosnia friendly in January, but his club declined as the match fell outside the FIFA international fixture window.
Osorio prioritizes training and playing in Europe above other continents, so if a final roster spot comes down to a fight between Jonathan Gonzalez and Govea for a spot in Russia, we would likely lean on the latter. But these two matches could plant a firm impression on Osorio above all else.
Jonathan Gonzalez, Monterrey, MF
Continuing on the conversation, here’s the side of the argument that favors the California-born Gonzalez.
Govea’s absence against Bosnia was Gonzalez’s gain, as the Monterrey midfielder replaced Elias Hernandez in the 57th minute and impressed against the European nation.
Composed with or without the ball and also improving going forward, the 18-year-old is the youngest member of this squad, and with Jonathan Dos Santos unavailable, this is a golden opportunity to prove to his manager that he is good enough for a place in Russia.
It would be great to see him play in both matches, but perhaps a better test would be more minutes against Croatia next Tuesday. This would be a splendid chance for Osorio to see what the young player can do against elite talent such as Modric and Rakitic.
If he passes that test with flying colors, it would be difficult for the Colombian manager to omit him from the squad going forward.