By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Nov 8, 2017) US Soccer Players - The windy and tumultuous path known as World Cup qualifying yielded positive results for Mexico as El Tricolor will play in its seventh consecutive World Cup next summer in Russia. Now that the dust has settled on qualifying, El Tri will start the next phase of its journey as preparations for Russia begin in earnest.
Just how that road looks and where it will take Mexico could be revealed somewhat over the next week. While friendly matches against Belgium on Friday and Poland on Monday will not advance Mexico beyond the World Cup’s Round of 16, the games and the way Mexico approaches them could show if El Tri is ready to take the next step. That's the difference between becoming a world power or showing up for four games and then head back home next summer.
This is a time about building up confidence within the squad, particularly with games in Europe, and it will be that confidence that will ultimately carry Mexico. However, there are some troubling signs already that could prove to be challenges for the team. These are now obstacles El Tri must overcome unless the team wants to start World Cup preparations taking a step back.
Already Mexico is battling against some preconceived soccer norms. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has been criticized heavily for his squad rotations. Osorio typically changes the lineup for every match and does not have a set starting 11. Every player on any given matchday roster seemingly has the opportunity to start.
While it seems difficult to build cohesion and get into a rhythm with each other, the strategy has yielded results. Mexico won two games and tied another in the group stage of the Confederations Cup over the summer, enough to advance. Copa America 2016 had the same pattern and it also yielded the same - two wins and a draw.
The largest problem though was how Mexico did in the subsequent matches. Mexico lost to Chile by an embarrassing 7-0 in the Copa America quarterfinals and bowed out with a 4-1 loss to Germany in the Confederations Cup. A successful group stage and a Round of 16 loss will not be acceptable for Mexico next summer.
Establishing a rhythm and getting experience against some fellow World Cup participants will be important. More important is setting an overall theme to start laying a foundation for next summer.
The squad itself is mostly strong and features many of the same players who could be representing El Tri next summer in Russia. In fact, Osorio could pare down this 25-man squad by two and submit this roster to FIFA and few would complain.
Included are players such as World Cup veterans Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno, and Guillermo Ochoa as well as promising youngsters in Hirving Lozano, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, and Edson Alvarez, all trying to land their first World Cup spot.
The roster itself is strong and competition is welcomed and expected. What's not certain what the players will be competing for. Spots, sure, but beyond that is unknown. Even if players have tremendous showings - great goals, stellar defensive play, incredible passes - what is the payoff beyond a spot on the roster? Is there even a competition for starting spots if there has been no pattern of having a starting lineup?
Now, Osorio would be wise to see as many of his players as possible over these two matches. Playing well for club is one thing. Seeing them against a loaded Belgium team is an opportunity that does not come often. Settling on a starting lineup is something the players should have as a goal. Competition for 23 spots is one thing but to compete for one or two spots (forwards fighting for a starting spot, left backs fighting to start at left back) is much different. Players must distinguish themselves even greater if they want to to win one spot, and that level of competition is something that El Tri does not have.
Also a bit of a concern is the inclusion of two young players. Omar Govea, 21, who plays for Belgian side Royal Excel Mouscron and Uriel Antuna, 20, who plays for Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie. The two are the only uncapped players on the roster and just one of six who have fewer than 10 games played for the senior side.
Perhaps it would have been more prudent to take players like Monterrey’s Jesus Molina, Tigres’ Jesus Duenas and Jorge Torres Nilo, or Chivas’ Orbelin Pineda or Oswaldo Alanis.
If Govea and Antuna have a legitimate shot of making the roster, perhaps including them would be a strong move. Instead, Osorio said in a press conference that he took advantage of the players’ proximity to bring them into the fold for the first time.
One of the bright spots for the roster is the continued inclusion of MLS players. LA Galaxy tandem Gio and Jonathan Dos Santos and soon-to-be LAFC star Carlos Vela are among the players battling for spots and should all figure in the plans next summer. MLS has been home to only one previous Mexican international at the time of the World Cup - Claudio Suarez who played with Chivas USA in 2006. The LA-based trio figures to quadruple that statistic, showing that MLS is a strong destination for El Tri.
Overall, the roster is promising but the way Osorio handles it over the next few days will go a long way. A strong start is important and would help Mexico go a long way toward reaching its goal of making the World Cup quarterfinals. Otherwise, this long road to Russia will be little more than the latest chapter in that familiar story.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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