Mexico will be without a trio of big names when it looks to continue its perfect record in World Cup qualification against Canada in Vancouver on Friday. New coach Juan Carlos Osorio began his reign with victories at home to El Salvador and away in Honduras to take maximum early points in the penultimate phase of Concacaf’s qualification for Russia 2018.
Now Osorio's squad will face back-to-back matches against Canada, in which two victories would secure Mexico’s place in the final round Hexagonal. But El Tri will embark on that challenge without three of the most prominent figures in Mexican soccer of recent years, with Giovani dos Santos, Guillermo Ochoa and Carlos Vela all missing.
Dos Santos’ failure to be selected is perhaps less of a surprise. The forward was also left out from Osorio’s first squad last November following his move to Major League Soccer, and has had an injury-disrupted start to the season at LA Galaxy. Ochoa’s exclusion, though, comes despite the experienced goalkeeper finally earning some playing time with La Liga side Malaga.
Vela’s situation is more complicated still. Arguably the most talented Mexican player of his generation, Vela missed the 2014 World Cup during a self-imposed exile from the national team of nearly three years. While he returned to the fray at the end of 2014, he has endured a poor season in La Liga with Real Sociedad, scoring just four goals, and has recently again been blighted by off-field issues.
The 27-year-old missed a training session earlier this month so he could attend a concert. However, Sociedad have insisted that his exclusion from the Mexico squad is purely down to a request from them that he do so.
Whatever the reasons, it is doubtful that Osorio was too disappointed at Vela not being available. It is a testament to the current depth of talent in Mexico that three players once considered key performers for the national team can be left out and there still being more than enough quality to fill out an exciting lineup.
There is now a heavy contingent of players operating at a high level in Europe, including Porto trio Héctor Herrera, Miguel Layun and Jesús “Tecatito” Corona, as well as Andres Guardado and Héctor Moreno at PSV Eindhoven and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández , who has 23 goals this season for Bayer Leverkusen.
And Osorio is also benefiting from, and showing a willingness to rely upon, a hugely promising emerging generation of talent. Five players from the latest squad are eligible for the Under-23 side at the Olympics this summer.
That pool is headed by Corona, who has already staked a strong claim to be a regular in the first XI. He is joined this time by Monterrey winger Cándido Ramírez, Chivas teenager Orbelín Pineda and Pachuca duo Rodolfo Pizarro and Hirving Lozano. Of that quartet, 20-year-old winger Lozano looks to be the man most in the running for minutes having scored six goals in his last six matches and a hat-trick last time out.
Osorio is unlikely to be experimenting with his lineup, though, particularly in the first match in Vancouver on Friday. Canada have taken an impressive four points from their first two qualifiers, at home to Honduras and away at El Salvador.
And, as they look to secure a place in the Hexagonal and a second ever World Cup berth, Canada have received a sizable boost. Scottish-born Scott Arfield, a midfielder with English Championship side Burnley, and who played regularly in the Premier League last season, has been called up for the first time after switching allegiance to the country of his father’s birth. And, despite having never stepped foot in Canada prior to arriving for training ahead of Friday’s fixture at BC Place, the 27-year-old insists he is relishing the opportunity.
“I made my decision about a year ago to come on this journey,” Arfield said, according to MLSSoccer.com. “I played youth level for Scotland, at 19s and 21s, and a B international, but not enough materialized. There was no ill-feeling towards it; I just felt I was getting on in my career, and this was the best opportunity for me to play international football and it's one I'm delighted I took.”
Match time: 10:08 p.m. EDT
Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan (Ludogorets Razgrad, Bulgaria), Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK, Sweden), Simon Thomas (Bodo/Glimt, Norway)
Defenders: Marcel de Jong (Ottawa Fury FC), David Edgar (Sheffield United, England), Doneil Henry (West Ham United, England), Dejan Jakovic (Shimizu S-Pulse, Japan), Manjrekar James (Dyosgyor, Hungary), Nik Ledgerwood (FC Edmonton), Karl Ouimette (New York Red Bulls, USA), Steven Vitoria (Benfica, Portugal)
Midfielders: Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas, USA), Julian de Guzman (Ottawa Fury FC), Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas, Turkey), Will Johnson (Toronto FC), Samuel Piette (Deportivo la Coruña, Spain), Adam Straith (Fredrikstad, Norway),
Forwards: Marcus Haber (Crewe Alexandra, England), Junior Hoilett (Queens Park Rangers, England), Iain Hume (SD Ponferradina, Spain), Cyle Larin (Orlando City, USA), Tosaint Ricketts (Free Agent), Scott Arfield (Burnley, England)
Goalkeepers: Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), Alejandro Palacios (Pumas), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca)
Defenders: Paul Aguilar (Club America), Néstor Araujo (Santos Laguna), Yasser Corona (Queretaro), Miguel Layun (Porto, Portugal),Rafa Márquez (Atlas), Héctor Moreno (PSV, Netherlands), Diego Reyes (Real Sociedad, Spain)
Midfielders: Javier Aquino (Tigres), Isaac Brizuela (Chivas), Jesús "Tecatito" Corona (Porto), Marco Fabián (Eintracht Frankfurt, Germany), Andres Guardado (PSV), Héctor Herrera (Porto), Hirving Lozano (Pachuca), Jesus Molina (Santos Laguna), Orbelin Pineda (Chivas), Rodolfo Pizarro (Pachuca), Cándido Ramírez (Monterrey)
Forwards: Javier Hernández (Bayer Leverkusen), Eduardo Herrera (Pumas), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica)
Prediction: Despite being at home, expect Canada to sit back and try to frustrate Mexico before looking to take whatever chances it has to mount counter attacks. Mexico, though, should have the quality to eventually get the breakthrough and secure victory.
Predicted score: Canada 0-1 Mexico