The pressure will be on Mexico and coach Miguel Herrera as their packed summer of competitive action gets underway on Friday. In Viña del Mar, Chile, El Tri will take on Bolivia in their opening game of the 2015 Copa America knowing that a win is likely to be vital to their chances of making it out of a group that also contains hosts Chile and a highly competitive Ecuador team.
And after what has been a troubled buildup to the competition, an opening victory would also go a long way to improving the atmosphere surrounding the squad. This summer was always going to be a challenge for Mexico given the task of competing at both South America’s championship and the Gold Cup. From the outset Herrera made regaining Concacaf superiority and earning a playoff with the United States to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup the priority, meaning the likes of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Carlos Vela and Héctor Herrera have been held in reserve for next month.
Still, Herrera has continued to state boldly that the players heading to Chile do not represent a “B” squad and that reaching the final is a realistic aim. While it was understood there was a certain amount of bravado involved in his confidence, it initially did not seem all that misplaced.
Herrera has ridden a wave of positive sentiment since taking over as coach at the end of 2013 and guiding El Tri through a playoff with New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup, after what had previously been a calamitous qualifying campaign involving three other coaches. Once in Brazil, Mexico impressed with the quality and style of their play and in only narrowly bowing out to the Netherlands in the Round of 16.
But there have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, difficulties in bringing the second-choice group together for the Copa America. After a send-off victory over Guatemala in Chiapas, Mexico could only draw 1-1 with Peru and before falling convincingly 2-0 to Brazil on Sunday. The squad is still very much a work in progress on the eve of the competition and doubts persist about whether Herrera is too beholden to his favored 5-3-2 formation, given that the players at his disposal for the Copa America appear more suited to an alternative setup.
It would, of course, be harsh enough to judge Herrera on the performances of what is essentially a squad of fringe players in the Copa America, never mind in friendlies ahead of the tournament. And there is little doubt that the primary judgement on the coach will be made upon whether he delivers the Gold Cup in the U.S.
But there is a sense of the mood around Herrera’s tenure turning, and not just because of performances on the pitch. Ahead of the Brazil match, Herrera, whose charismatic personality has cultivated a large Twitter following, tweeted his support for one of the political parties vying for votes in midterm elections on the same day. The tweets were in violation of the Mexican Football Federation’s code of ethics that requires representatives of the team to remain impartial on such matters, and came amid allegations that the party in question had paid sports stars and celebrities to voice their support. An investigation has been launched by the Federation into Herrera’s actions, with reports of a fine being issued, while criticism has come from Mexico fans across social media.
The events certainly do not make for ideal preparation for an event to which Mexico have been regular invitees over the years. It will bring back unwelcome memories, too, of El Tri’s last visit to the Copa America, when losing all three group games four years ago.
With the top two teams from each of the three groups and the best two third-placed teams making it through to the quarterfinals, Mexico have ample opportunity to progress. But there is little doubt that the match with Bolivia represents their best chance of a victory. Bolivia have failed to make it out of the opening round of a Copa America since reaching the final in 1997, when benefiting from playing at altitude on home soil. Indeed, Bolivia have not won a single match outside their home country since beating South Africa in a friendly in March 2007. And their preparations for the tournament have hardly been ideal, losing 5-0 to Argentina on Saturday.
Prediction: It would be a huge blow to Mexico’s hopes were they to gain anything other than a victory from their match with Bolivia. While plenty of doubts remain about the side, Herrera’s men should have the quality to deliver. PSV Eindhoven winger Jesús “Tecatito” Corona has looked lively in the preparation matches and he could give Mexico a spark to get a vital three points.
Predicted score: Mexico over Bolivia, 2-1