Life as the coach of the Mexican national team is one of the most highly pressurized and precarious jobs around. Evidence of that fact is not hard to find, with Mexico currently on its sixth coach in a little over two years. It will be of considerable relief to current incumbent Juan Carlos Osorio, then, that his reign could hardly have started any better.
The Colombian, who took charge following the short and successful interim spell of Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, has won both games that he's managed in the penultimate round of World Cup qualifying. And there is more reason for encouragement beyond the bare statistics.
A home win over El Salvador is hardly a result to get too excited about, but the fact that it came so comfortably, 3-0, and at the Estadio Azteca, where Mexico struggled so severely when qualifying for the last World Cup, made it extra sweet. Then on Tuesday night came a far more impressive result. In a country where Mexico had not won in 22 years, and in the stifling heat and intimidating atmosphere of San Pedro Sula, where El Tri had not won in half a century, Osorio led the team to a 2-0 victory.
It was a contest in which Osorio’s reputation for tinkering was in full evidence. He elected to make five changes from his first team selection and fielded an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation. But the performance also displayed his tactical shrewdness as Mexico sat back and took the sting out of both the Honduras players and the packed crowd at the Estadio Olímpico. Then when he sensed the time was right, he introduced the flair that ultimately decided the contest in his side’s favor.
Just six minutes after coming off the bench, 22-year-old Jesús “Tecatito” Corona lit up the match with a brilliant flick-and-volley finish to give Mexico the lead. And a short time later, another substitute, 23-year-old Jürgen Damm, scored an individual goal of almost equal quality to keep the result safe. It capped a night that put Mexico in a strong position to stroll into the final qualifying round “Hexagonal.” Ahead of a double header with Canada next March, Mexico sit top of a four-team group from which two teams will go onto the Hex.
But it also offered much to be optimistic about far beyond the immediate future. The likes of Corona and Damm are two members of an exciting breed of talent that has the potential to make Mexico not just the dominant team in Concacaf, but also a real threat on the world stage. Corona is already making his mark at Porto, alongside international teammates Miguel Layun and Hector Herrera. Indeed of the 14 players that took the field for Mexico on Tuesday, seven have played regularly in the Champions League this season. That contrasts sharply with the United States, which only has Fabian Johnson playing at that top level.
Of course, talent is far from a guarantee of success, as Mexico knows all too well. Going into 2013, Mexican soccer was on a real high. At senior level, the team had romped to the 2011 Gold Cup title, while the youth level Mexico had claimed Olympic Gold in London and the Under-17 World Cup crown. Talk of being a serious outside contender at the World Cup in Brazil abounded. Instead, El Tri endured a traumatic qualifying campaign that so nearly ended in disaster. Only Mexico’s fourth coach of the year, Miguel Herrera, finally guided the team to the finals.
A much more stable path to Russia in 2018 must be the aim, not just fort Osorio, but for the whole of Mexican soccer. At the moment there is set to be a five-month gap between Mexico next takes the field, when first visiting Canada and then against the same opponents back in Mexico in March, 2016. Positive results there and Mexico could be all-but secured of progressing before the group’s final matches later in the year.
In between, tougher challenges will await, when Mexico takes its place in the field for June’s Copa América Centenario, alongside the 10 teams from South America and six from Concacaf. It will be then that Osorio will have to show that he can succeed against true top-level opposition. For now, though, the signs are rosy for both him and for El Tri.
Mexico upcoming schedule
March 25: at Canada
March 29: vs. Canada
June 3-26: Copa América Centenario
Sept. 2: at El Salvador
Sept. 6: vs. Honduras