Mexico’s elimination from the Copa America at the very first hurdle has seen attention quickly turn to the upcoming Gold Cup. Yet it does so with greater pressure on coach Miguel Herrera than ever before. It was always going to be a major challenge for Mexico this summer, performing double duty in both South and North America. But there can be little doubt that the first phase has been a major disappointment.
Despite taking a “B” strength squad to Chile, Herrera had happily heaped expectation onto the side by repeatedly claiming that that the team was equipped to reach the final. Yet, other than some bright moments in a 3-3 draw with hosts Chile, the team never appeared to have the fluency or defensive strength to mount any sort of challenge. An opening goalless draw with the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, Bolivia, was followed by a 2-1 defeat to Ecuador on Friday. Only fellow invitees Jamaica finished the group stage with fewer points, and Herrera had no qualms about describing the team’s performances as a “failure.”
In one sense, the failure is not a serious one. The Copa America was always the secondary competition this year, with the focus from the start put on regaining the Concacaf Gold Cup and earning a playoff with the United States for the right to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup. And only one member of the Copa America squad, Jesús “Tecatito” Corona, will be joining up with the party already preparing for the Gold Cup, which begins for Mexico on July 9. But it has further dampened the mood around Herrera after what was a dream start to his reign, and means he has little or no margin for error going into the Gold Cup.
Herrera came into the job after what had been a disastrous 2014 for El Tri and safely guided the team through a playoff with New Zealand to finally secure a place at the World Cup. Once there, Mexico played with great verve and Herrera’s charisma on the sidelines won him plenty of fans in Mexico and across the world. Only a last-gasp penalty sunk them in the Round of 16 against a Netherlands team that would go onto finish third. Still, being ultra-critical, it could be pointed out that Mexico simply matched their performance at the last five World Cups.
With the task of building two squads for this summer, momentum has been difficult to build since Brazil, despite the high of a win over the Netherlands in Amsterdam. But Herrera’s big test is at the Gold Cup, where he’ll need to show that he is more than just the passionate presence Mexico needed after a bleak 2013, and that he has the nous to bring top-level success to a talented group of players.
Certainly the ability is there in his squad. One of Herrera’s key successes so far has been getting perhaps the most talented Mexican player, Carlos Vela, to end his international exile. A collection of forwards also featuring Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who displayed real sharpness toward the end of last season with Real Madrid, together with Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta, is, on paper, by far the most fearsome at the Gold Cup.
In midfield, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado are coming in off the back of fine seasons in Europe, while Corona was one of the few bright spots at the Copa America. Crucially, the defense should have an improved look, thanks in large part to the presence of Espanyol’s Héctor Moreno. At wing-back, Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar are far better equipped for the crucial, demanding positions than were their understudies in Chile.
There is even a positive to take from Mexico’s early Copa America exit. Herrera will now have much-needed extra time working with his players in the United States ahead of a two warmup friendlies against Costa Rica and Honduras, first on Saturday and then next Wednesday. Mexico’s group at the Gold Cup also provides them chance to ease into the tournament. Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago nor Guatemala, brushed aside 3-0 in a friendly ahead of the Gold Cup, should prove too stern a test. Instead, that is unlikely to come until the latter stages, when the U.S. and Costa Rica, Concacaf’s top performers at the 2014 World Cup, will be expected to pose a significant threat to Mexico’s hopes of regaining continental superiority and Herrera’s hopes of keeping his job.
Mexico Gold Cup Schedule
Thursday, July 9: vs. Cuba at 9.30 p.m. EDT (Soldier Field, Chicago)
Sunday, July 12: vs. Guatemala at 9 p.m. EDT (University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.)
Wednesday, July 15: vs. Trinidad and Tobago at 8:30 p.m. EDT (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte)
Mexico Gold Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (Malaga, Spain), Moises Muñoz (Club America), Jonathan Orozco (Monterrey)
Defenders: Francisco Rodríguez (Cruz Azul), Diego Reyes (FC Porto, Portugal), Héctor Moreno (Espanyol, Spain), Yasser Corona (Queretaro), Miguel Ángel Herrera (Pachuca), Paul Aguilar (Club America), Jesús Dueñas (Tigres), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres), Miguel Layun (Watford, England)
Midfielders: José Juan Vázquez (Club Leon), Andrés Guardado (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), Hector Herrera (FC Porto, Portugal), Antonio Rios (Toluca), Carlos Esquivel (Toluca), Jonathan Dos Santos (Villarreal, Spain), Jesús Corona (Twente, Netherlands)
Forwards: Giovani Dos Santos (Villarreal, Spain), Oribe Peralta (Club America), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad, Spain), Javier Hernández (Real Madrid, Spain)