By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 20, 2018) US Soccer Players - Through the first slate of opening-round games of the 2018 World Cup, perhaps the most surprising result has been Mexico’s shocking 1-0 win over Germany. One of the favorites coming into the tournament, Germany lost to a tenacious and energetic Mexican side. The underdogs deserved the result.
Winning the opening game of the World Cup is a far cry from winning the championship. One strong showing does not do much as Mexico can attest.
Mexico has been consistent in its last six World Cups, and that's their biggest problem. We know they can get out of their group. What they haven't done is get out of the round of 16. The performances have varied wildly, from outings like the one Mexico had on Sunday to ones where El Tri is clearly the second-best team on the field. If Mexico wants to take the next step in joining the world’s elite, then a string of strong performances is necessary.
Good results have not been rare. In fact, they've been common. The challenge is for consistently good performances. El Tri seemed to get it right last time out up until the very end. While the focus has always been on the way Mexico’s 2014 round of 16 match against the Netherlands finished, it was already level when Arjen Robben drew a penalty kick in second-half stoppage time. Few mention Mexico’s poor set-piece defending on Wesley Sneijder’s 88th-minute equalizer. Mexico was three minutes from a 1-0 win, but it all went away in a matter of minutes.
Mexico had a splendid first round in 2014, including a 0-0 draw against the hosts Brazil that featured an outstanding performance by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. The defense did not play consistently all the way through.
In 2002, Mexico also had a strong showing in the first round. Wins over Croatia and Ecuador and a 1-1 draw against Italy with Mexico winning its group. El Tri fell flat against the USMNT and exited at the round of 16. El Tri’s showing in Germany 06 was poor. A scoreless draw against Angola and a 2-1 loss to Portugal was a terrible way to get through the group stage. Losing to Argentina in extra time though was admirable, not for the loss itself but the manner in which Mexico fought.
Mexico took care of France in 2010, but that was the only strong performance El Tri had in South Africa. The opening game against the host nation ended 1-1. The 3-1 loss to Argentina in the Round of 16 was poor.
Now, Mexico has beaten Germany. They've knocked off the defending World Cup champions. Thinking that a win of that magnitude means Mexico has arrived is foolish. This is the World Cup, and it doesn't normally get easier in the knockout rounds. El Tri will have to beat another team of Germany’s caliber at some point should they get out of their group. Brazil is a potential round of 16 match-up, with Belgium or England possibly looming after that.
Mexico also cannot let up in the group stage. South Korea looks beatable, but after Germany, anyone would. The challenge will be to play a more open style and not commit mistakes. Mexico bested Germany tactically, sitting back and absorbing pressure while using speed to counter and ultimately punish the Germans. Also, Mexico was very neat and tidy and did not make mistakes, the kind that usually end up in the back of the net.
In Mexico’s favor, though, is how the group lines up. If Mexico beats South Korea and Germany does not beat Sweden, Mexico will wrap up its qualification for the second round on Saturday. If Germany beats Sweden, then Mexico will hope it is by several goals, so the goal-differential plays into Mexico’s favor. Sweden may find itself in the position of needing several goals to get past El Tri and move into the Round of 16 in that scenario.
Perhaps everything is lining up for Mexico. The World Cup qualifying campaign was relatively smooth. Unlike the rest of CONCACAF, Mexico walked through qualifying without much trouble. Tournament results were not positive, but Mexico may have learned from those losses.
Mexico’s beleaguered manager Juan Carlos Osorio has also lifted off some of the pressure and criticism he had coming into the tournament. The lineup Osorio used against Germany was formidable and seemed to do the trick, but the manager tends to outthink himself and make too many changes to the squad.
While there is something to jobs being open for the taking and the positive effects that competition in practice can have on a squad, there is also the matter of consistency and building off strong results. It may be tough to find consistency as a team if there is little consistency with the lineup, formation, and tactics. Changes to the lineup against South Korea could have negative and unexpected consequences.
Osorio though has shown a tendency to do just that. Osorio has yet to repeat one lineup since taking over as Tri boss in 2015, so it is unlikely that he will break that tendency now. While it may be tempting to put players in like Jonathan Dos Santos, Raul Jimenez, and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, that may do more harm than good. Building consistency with inconsistent lineups is difficult. It's also tough to establish any sort of foundation if the lineup keeps changing.
This is a process, one that Mexico has never been able to figure out. Perhaps this is Mexico’s coming-of-age at World Cup level. Still, one win, no matter how exceptional it is, requires more.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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(Graphic courtesy of the FMF)