By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jun 19, 2019) US Soccer Players - Normally, the summer after the World Cup would be a busy and important one for the Mexican national team. Played every odd-numbered year, the Gold Cup is a calendar staple. With Copa America held the year after the World Cup, that too would be plenty to keep Mexico busy. Add in the importance of the FIFA Confederations Cup. For years the winner of the Gold Cup immediately following the World Cup would gain entry. That meant the first tournament of the World Cup cycle was massive.
Times have changed. Mexico is no longer an invited guest of CONMEBOL for the Copa America. The Confederations Cup is now history, with FIFA moving on from the competition.
The 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup then will be the most important tournament Mexico will play in during this World Cup cycle. Combined with Mexico coach Tata Martino guiding Mexico in meaningful competition for the first time and this makes the Gold Cup as big of a must-win as possible.
Plenty will judge Mexico if they do anything less than win Given all of the advantages it enjoys like a weak group and all its games played in massive stadiums before massive crowds, the expectation for El Tri is to win. That would affirm the Martino project at the earliest opportunity. Anything less, and it's quickly the same old story for Mexico.
Mexico has won just one of the last three Gold Cups and has reached the final just that one time, in 2015. That summer was particularly important for El Tri as the team regained its footing after struggling to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. A strong Gold Cup helped Mexico gain solid footing for its qualification campaign ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
El Tri did not have a debutant coach then, one that the entire nation has high hopes in. Martino has come in with great promise with his impressive high-flying tactics. If he can get Mexico playing cohesive attacking soccer, they'll be difficult to beat. Already El Tri has shown quite a bit of muscle in this tournament, opening with a 7-0 win over Cuba on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Uriel Antuna was the hat-trick hero in the match as the LA Galaxy man had his first three goals with the national team in the win.
A lopsided win over Cuba does not show much. In fact, that is what the entire tournament is like for El Tri. Playing opponents they should beat carries with it that old scenario. It should happen. If it doesn't, that's a problem. At least, that's how Mexico's supporters feel.
Things have not been that easy for Martino. The opening match was a walkover, but Martino's road to the Gold Cup came with challenges. The biggest one was player selection.
Not included on the squad are valuable attacking players Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Hector Herrera, and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. Each player save Corona had a legitimate reason not to participate. Hernandez just became a father for the first time and opted to stay home. Vela chose to stay with LAFC and focus on his club and his family, although Vela has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Mexican soccer federation for years. Herrera meanwhile declined te call-up in order to recover from what he called a long and emotionally- and mentally-draining year with his club and to try and secure his future. Herrera is out of contract with Porto and on the search for a new club.
Only Corona's absence is a bit unjustified. Martino left the youngster off the roster after Corona was a no-show for friendlies held earlier this year. Corona had a gimpy ankle. Despite pleas from Martino to join the team anyway, Corona left the coach hanging. The fallout from that was omission from this roster.
The expectations surrounding Mexico do not change with those players' absences. After all, El Tri still counts on players such as Raul Jimenez, Andres Guardado, Guillermo Ochoa, and Jonathan Dos Santos. A lightweight group with Cuba, Canada, and Martinique all but guarantees Mexico the group A title. That would mean a quarterfinal against Costa Rica, Haiti, Bermuda, or Nicaragua as group B's 2nd-place team.
As if Mexico needed more help, Mexico will have the opportunity to play in front of large support. That will give the team its usual home-away-from-home-field advantage. Mexico played before 65,527 fans against Cuba, a figure that accounted for a little more than two-thirds of the available seats at the Rose Bowl. Against Canada, Mexico is playing at the 76,125-seat Broncos Stadium while El Tri will wrap up the group stage at the 75,523-seat Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. If Mexico makes it to the final, it will have played its quarterfinal games at Houston's NRG Stadium (71,995 capacity) and State Farm Stadium in Glendale (72,200 capacity) before the final at Chicago's Soldier Field (61,500).
For Mexico, the feeling has to be that the Gold Cup is there for the taking. Regardless of all the advantages Mexico has, this will be Martino's first chance to guide Mexico in a tournament. Concacaf's Nations League is set to begin later this year but who knows that what will look like for Mexico and all participating nations.
This is the chance Mexico has before it now. For its supporters, only a trophy will do.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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