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Mexico Emerges From the Cold Feeling the Heat in World Cup Qualifying

With two qualifying windows left, Mexico finds itself just barely in position to secure an automatic berth, and its coach is firmly on the hot seat.

Things change quickly when the heat rises and yet the temperature simultaneously plummets.

Mexico was 4-0-2 and atop the Concacaf World Cup qualifying table after two windows in the Octagonal, seemingly coasting to a place in Qatar next fall. It'll still probably get there with relative ease. Modern history would suggest that not only will Mexico qualify for the World Cup, but it'll get out of the group and promptly be eliminated in the round of 16. After all, that's happened for the last seven cycles without fail. But its 2026 World Cup co-hosts and a Panama side that just won't quit have certainly made things more interesting as the year in World Cup qualifying comes to a close and as the final two windows loom in the coming months.

Through eight of 14 matches, Mexico sits third in the region where a top-three finish books an automatic berth to the World Cup and a fourth-place finish results in an intercontinental playoff for one more spot. It's ahead of Panama on goal differential for third and, more vitally, five points clear of the doom that comes with finishing out of the top four, which was felt by the U.S. in qualifying for Russia 2018. There's still a margin for error and a favorable set of fixtures ahead.

For El Tri, the November window featured the middle two of four straight matches away from home, including what were likely Mexico's toughest matches of the entire process: at the U.S., where it's historically struggled in qualifying since the turn of the century, and at Canada, which gave new meaning to home field advantage by rolling out a night of frigid temperatures, snow and artificial turf. If Mexico thought Ohio in the fall and winter months was bad, that must have seemed like paradise compared to an icy night in Edmonton.

Mexico-Canada-Edmonton-Cold

Despite any reasoning that might seem legitimate when considering the bigger picture, the consecutive defeats mean the calls for Tata Martino's job are increasing (three competitive losses to the U.S. in a five-month span and the revival of the "Dos a Cero" mystique are also surely factors). He flatly declared he would not be resigning when asked following the 2–1 defeat to the Canadians, yet the headlines from the Mexican newspapers have been brutal, if not humorous.

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The Mexican federation has a decision to make. Either trust that the worst is over—that the separation between the top and bottom halves of the Octagonal table creates enough of a cushion and that results will turn—or pull the trigger on a coaching move now that will, in theory, accelerate a turn in form and fortune. The break of over two months between windows is the time to do it, if it's going to happen. But as El Tri found out over the course of the last week, things change on a dime in this qualifying format. With Canada and the U.S. set to face each other in the next window—and with Mexico having two matches at the Azteca, including one head-to-head vs. Panama, following a road test in Jamaica—Mexico's first-choice center backs should be available, unlike this window. Although Hirving Lozano is suspended for the trip to Kingston, it doesn't take much to envision a scenario in which Mexico's standing becomes a bit more sturdy in a matter of three games.

Mexico manager Tata Martino

For the time being, though, El Tri must marinate in a position that's uncomfortable. Canada's ability to go toe-to-toe with the giants of the region is clearly no fluke, and a young U.S. side is maturing and gaining experience on the fly, despite having key players unavailable in each window. When the next FIFA ranking comes out, it'll be the U.S., not Mexico, that is the region's top-ranked side, something that hasn't happened in more than six years. 

Mexico will need to take a version of Guillermo Ochoa's advice and have a long, hard look in the mirror. What it'll see is a side that needs to bottle whatever sense of urgency it conjured in the dying minutes in Edmonton, when it came a goal-line save away from stealing a draw, and apply it more regularly. What could have been a window in which Mexico effectively wrapped up its World Cup berth instead took on a completely more humbling tone. The ice isn't fully cracking underneath El Tri, and the worst could well be over, but as the Octagonal turns into more of a four-team race for three automatic berths, it has become evident that what once looked like a Mexico romp to a first-place finish will be way more of a fight than initially anticipated down the stretch.

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