By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 7, 2017) US Soccer Players – Busy summers are part and parcel for national teams. For Mexico though this summer will be busy and historic, with long-lasting effects that could set El Tri up well for the next few years. Whether or not all that comes to fruition depends on how coach Juan Carlos Osorio and the players respond and what they prioritize.
Mexico’s summer of soccer begins at home with World Cup qualifiers, then continues in Russia with the 2017 Confederations Cup. It culminates with the bi-annual Gold Cup. The stakes are high in each game but the cumulative effect of everything could give Mexico what it really wants – success at the World Cup.
The goals for El Tri are simple and attainable: get to the World Cup, then build up some confidence to succeed in the World Cup itself. Those are seemingly always the goal before and during World Cup qualifying. Mexico players have that directly in front of them now, and the time to seize on that opportunity is here.
QUEST FOR RUSSIA
Mexico’s World Cup path can be complete with a pair of wins over the next few days. Mexico hosts Honduras Thursday, then plays the United States on Sunday. Both games are at Estadio Azteca. Mexico simply needs to win two games at home and the World Cup dream will become reality. Two wins would give the front runners 16 points. That would essentially wrap up a berth in Russia 2018.
Two wins means 16 points. That’s been enough to seal up a direct ticket to the World Cup in each previous Hexagonal. In 2010, Costa Rica and Honduras finished tied with 16 points. Honduras qualified directly to South Africa 2010 while Costa Rica went to a playoff series against Uruguay, which it lost.
This time around, there is great balance throughout the field. Last-place Trinidad & Tobago surprised Panama already. 5th-place Honduras may have struggled against the USMNT in March but los Catrachos are strong at home. Every point will be hard-fought. With teams taking points from one another, it’s doubtful that three teams surpass the 16-point mark should Mexico attain it in the next few days.
Neither game is simple. In the previous cycle, Mexico tied the USMNR 0-0 and lost to Honduras by 2-1 . That was a mostly disastrous and forgettable cycle for El Tri. This team though is much different. Things have been going well for the team since the World Cup in Brazil. Mexico has not been in this solid of a position midway through qualification since 2005, when a Ricardo Lavolpe-led Mexico side was so efficient and masterful in qualification that the matches were boring.
These next two matches certainly won’t be boring but El Tri has the potential to make them lack any real emotion. Mexico’s workmanlike dispatching of Costa Rica at home on March 24 was a potential precursor for these two games. Mexico will have the comfort and advantage of playing both of the games at home, eliminating any travel issues and forcing opponents to acclimate to the conditions in Mexico City.
The only potential distraction could be if Mexico starts looking ahead to the last part of June. That’s where Osorio comes into play. Osorio must keep the focus on the matches t hand
QUEST IN RUSSIA
How Mexico does at home could set up how it does in Russia. Mexico will play three challenging matches at the Confederations Cup. A confident Mexico, on the heels of two strong performances in World Cup qualifying, could lay some important groundwork for 2018. But a weak Mexico, lacking confidence due to a poor showing at home, may need to show well to save some face and get back to the New World with some confidence.
Mexico will play Portugal on June 18, New Zealand on June 21, and the host Russians on June 24. Mexico has games in the same country and the same venues that the World Cup will be in a year from now. This World Cup dress rehearsal could give some invaluable experience and build up some true confidence for Mexico.
Consider this. Mexico did poorly in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil but came back a year later and played tremendously. With some experience and success, Mexico could carry that further a year from now in trying to break through to the quarterfinal stage, which has eluded Mexico in each of the last six World Cups.
Success in qualifying is much more important than the Confederations Cup. That doesn’t mean the tournament is a throwaway competition or even an afterthought. Mexico needs to prove it can play with the big boys on the biggest stage. A semifinal appearance would show just that. The last part of the summer though is definitely an afterthought but there is still some value in it.
QUEST AFTER RUSSIA
The Gold Cup will rear its ugly head once more in July. The bi-annual cash grab of a tournament will feature a diluted Mexico side, filled with players who are on the bubble and trying to gain some experience and traction on a deep team.
The goal will not be to win the Gold Cup. Instead, it’s about experience for some talent and to give players an audition for making the top side. Perhaps a player like Erick “Cubo” Torres or Alan Pulido can show something over the month-long tournament. Players like Hugo Ayala or Jorge Torres Nilo offer experience. Osorio will count on them to guide the team. That could help El Tri in qualification when that resumes in September.
Mexico will have already played their most important games of the summer by the time the Gold Cup kicks off. It could be that the Gold Cup is a celebration of sorts, to honor the national team after succeeding at home and in Russia. It may not matter to fans then if Mexico does well or not. That’s good since the Gold Cup is not anywhere near a priority this summer.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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