It’s been so far, so good for Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio. After his first experience in Mexico ended at Puebla in just three months, the Colombian was far from a popular choice to fill the vacancy left by Miguel Herrera. But a perfect start to World Cup qualifying, cruising through the group phase of the Copa America Centenario and winning nine of drawing one of his first 10 games in charge, will surely have swayed even the biggest of skeptics.
Such is the fickle world of being the Mexico national team coach, though, and Osorio will be all too aware that the mood around his tenure could swing considerably if he fails to fulfill the objective of a semifinal place in the United States. Given that it is defending champion Chile that now stands between El Tri and a last-four berth, the stakes are high and the margin for error small.
Few could seriously question the work Osorio has done so far. Yet for Mexico, as is the case for the United States, the Copa America is the closest thing to a World Cup during the four-year cycle. And what Mexico craves more than anything is to win a knockout round match at a World Cup. It is one of international soccer’s most remarkable records that, in the last six World Cups, Mexico has reached the first knockout round and then gone no further.
Along the way, there have been plenty of agonizing misses — a penalty shootout defeat to Bulgaria in 1994, a last-gasp defeat to Germany in 1998, an extra-time loss to Argentina in 2006 and a controversial late penalty won by Dutchman Arjen Robben in 2014. But the fact remains that Mexico has not reached a quarterfinal for 30 years, the last time it hosted the World Cup.
It stands Osorio’s team in good stead, then, that it has enjoyed effective home support throughout this Copa America. Mexico, as has become customary, has enjoyed huge support across the U.S., proving a bigger draw than the official host nation. Saturday’s quarterfinal at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, is sold out. While there will be a decent number in Chilean red, as there were among the 69,451 who helped sell out a group match at the same stadium against Argentina, the vast majority will unquestionably be rooting for El Tri.
It is more than just support from the stands that Mexico will have in its favor. Mexico has an immensely talented squad, featuring — unlike previous years — a host of players operating at a high level in Europe. While some, like Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Andrés Guardado are already experienced, others could soon be about to make a leap to an even higher level.
Midfielder Hector Herrera has been linked with a summer move to Napoli, while his Porto teammate Jesús “Tecatito” Corona scored one of the goals of the tournament with a mesmeric dribble and finish to secure a 1-1 draw with Venezuela that allowed Mexico to top Group C.
Throw in Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and others, and the future looks bright, regardless of what transpires Thursday. The present isn’t looking bad either.
For Mexico’s opponent in the quarterfinals, the situation is less certain. Both countries have changed coaches since a thrilling 3-3 draw in the group stage of last year’s Copa America. But, even if for some the jury remains out on Osorio, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who believes Chile has made an upgrade with the man in charge.
Jorge Sampaoli, a disciple and refiner of the high-pressing, thrilling philosophy that fellow-Argentine Marcelo Bielsa brought to Chile, led the country to new heights. With victory over Argentina in last year’s final, Chile won its first ever major international title — and in front of its home fans, to boot.
Yet Sampaoli walked away from his position at the start of the year after a dispute with the new president of the Football Federation of Chile. And it is easy to think his decision might also have been influenced by the thought of where he and Chile could go after such a historic achievement.
It is an aging squad that may have passed its peak. There have been few signs of the often breathtakingly intense Chile of old under Sampaoli’s replacement, Juan Antonio Pizzi.
A comprehensive defeat by Argentina to open the Copa America made it three defeats in four games under Pizzi. Even a victory over South America’s weakest team, Bolivia, only arrived thanks to a controversial penalty in the 10th minute of injury time. Against Panama in a decisive final group game, Chile did show more cohesiveness going forward to get four goals. Yet the intensity on the defensive end remained largely absent, giving up a host of chances along with two goals.
One of the world’s best sides until recently, Chile, fueled by Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal, will likely have to rediscover some of that magic if it to keep the defense of its title alive.
Mexico: EL Tri will be without winger Javier Aquino after he suffered a left thigh injury in the 1-1 draw with Venezuela. After making several changes against Venezuela, Hernández, Miguel Layun, Jesús Corona and Rafa Márquez are likely to be among those who return to the starting lineup.
Chile: Having produced its best performance of the competition last time out, Chile could be unchanged for the quarterfinal.
Prediction: It may not quite match the 3-3 draw between the sides in last year’s Copa America, but there is reason to think that there will be more goals than the 1-0 friendly win for Mexico over Chile just before this tournament got underway. Both teams are capable of playing a high-tempo attacking game and have left gaps at the back for opponents to exploit. With Sánchez and Vidal, Chile arguably have the most outstanding individuals in the game, but it is doubtful they will be at their best after grueling schedules last season and little rest for the past few years. Mexico, meanwhile, has a shrewder coach and, quite possibly at this stage, a hungrier team.
Predicted Score: Mexico 2-1 Chile