By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Aug 30, 2017) US Soccer Players – There’s something to say for tranquility. For once, Mexico is not flailing about in World Cup qualifying. There are no imminent sackings or roster shake-ups. Mexico only needs one positive result in the next few days to book passage to Russia 2018.
And yet, there is no enthusiasm surrounding the team. Rather, the excitement scale is barely registering a reading, if ticket sales are any indication.
There are certainly valid reasons for El Tri supporters to feel indifferent about the team in its current state. Still, these upcoming World Cup qualifiers could help El Tri take a massive step toward succeeding in the World Cup next summer and help the team obtain their ultimate goal.
Or rather, what the ultimate goal should be. Mexican federation officials fancy the team as a World Cup contender. The goal for next summer should be much simpler. Do something that previous Mexico teams haven’t. Sure, Mexico has never won a World Cup. They’ve also never reached the quarterfinal in any World Cup held outside of Mexico. Mexico has never reached a World Cup semifinal.
Whatever the goal is or should be next summer, the team takes crucial steps in September against Panama and Costa Rica. The first game in five days is the less challenging task of the two. Panama will visit Estadio Azteca on Friday. While a stronger side now than it has been in recent years, Panama will surely struggle. Mexico’s only home win during the 2013 Hexagonal was against this same Panamanian side. Had Mexico even dropped one point in that match, El Tri would have missed out entirely on the 2014 World Cup.
The game is critical for Mexico. A win gives Mexico enough points to see the team through to the World Cup. Mexico would become the first CONCACAF nation to secure a spot in the World Cup, only the fourth behind host Russia, Brazil and Iran. THis would also be one game quicker than the last time Mexico sailed through qualifying, when Mexico clinched a spot in the 2006 World Cup with a win over Panama in its eighth Hexagonal match in 2005. None of that is enough to sell out Estadio Azteca. Aside from a general lack of enthusiasm by supporters surrounding the team, storms have hit Mexico City hard and ticket sales are lagging. Enough that the federation offered a two-for-one discount for entry into this match.
Nevertheless, Mexico carries several roster issues into this match. Veteran defender and captain Rafa Marquez is out in bizarre circumstances. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Marquez for his alleged involvement as a front person for a drug cartel network. Marquez has not played since the allegations surfaced on August 9 and is unlikely to return this year. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said that he evaluated Marquez like anyone else. Because he has not been playing for his club it would not make sense to take him. That’s the polite way of describing the situation.
Finding a replacement for Marquez is priority number one for Osorio. Marquez was well on his way to captaining Mexico for what would have been his fifth World Cup. While a return to the national team is not out of the question, it is reasonable to assume it will not happen.
Leadership is not in short supply. Fellow Atlas prpduct Andres Guardado has assumed the captaincy. Himself a three-time World Cup veteran, Guardado is now tasked with picking up the slack and trying to guide the team though some important matches with the added responsibility of wearing the armband.
Marquez’s armband was not just a ceremonial title. Marquez has played in all but one qualifier, was on the field for all four of Mexico’s Confederations Cup matches, and scored what could be the most important goal. It was Marquez for the game-winner in a 2-1 triumph over the United States in November.
Guardado has the skill and ability to create such moments. If the team goes through a rough patch the players will be looking at him for guidance, the same way they have looked at Marquez in previous World Cups. While not a traditional passing of the armband, the team is now Guardado’s to skipper. That process begins against Panama.
Overall though Osorio must prepare the team to play these next two matches like he will next summer. Like they are against Panama, Mexico expects to succeed in the first round of the World Cup. The next step will be the more difficult one. Mexico’s subsequent match in this five-day stretch will be the more challenging of the two as Mexico will play at Costa Rica.
While this Costa Rica side has already lost to El Tri in this qualifying cycle – a 2-0 Mexico win at Estadio Azteca on March 24 – Los Ticos sit in second place with 11 points through six matches. They could be playing to secure a spot in Russia when the two meet Tuesday in San Jose’s Estadio Nacional.
Mexico has not handled the ramping-up of pressure in the World Cup very well before. Mexico has lost all seven of its elimination matches in World Cups dating back to a penalty-kick loss to Bulgaria in the 1994 edition. This quick turnaround is a chance for Osorio to take an already qualified squad and rise to the challenge against a motivated opponent.
Osorio has not done well himself with the team facing elimination. With the Colombian at the helm, Mexico lost to Germany and Chile in the last two major summer tournaments. While a match at Costa Rica is far from the stakes the team will face next summer, a game against a World Cup-caliber side playing for their tournament lives is no small feat. Osorio may stave off some of the criticism and may inject some life into the national team with a strong showing in San Jose.
The foundation for success next summer is in place. While there could have been greater work done had Mexico reached the Confederations Cup final or even played better against Germany, El Tri is in line for a World Cup berth and has taken many positive steps forward that will surely pay off in Russia.
Booking passage and adding to that is Mexico’s most pressing challenge. While that may not cause Tricolor fans to flock by the thousands to Azteca, it is a small price to pay for having growth and stability.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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