In arguably the pick of the quarterfinals, defending champion Chile will take on a Mexico side unbeaten in 22 matches at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, for a place in the final four of the Copa America Centenario and a meeting with Colombia on Wednesday.
While Chile has the greater recent pedigree, it was Mexico that was the more impressive in the group stage. After securing a crucial opening win over Uruguay, El Tri got the better of Jamaica and then secured the draw it needed against Venezuela to to Group C. The results extended an unbeaten streak that stretches back to the final game of the 2015 Copa America group stage, when a second-string Mexico side bowed out of the tournament at the first hurdle.
Since then, Mexico has changed coach, with Juan Carlos Osorio replacing Miguel Herrera. And the Colombian has made an impressive start, winning nine and drawing one of his first 10 matches. Still, that hasn’t been enough to completely satisfy an often overly demanding Mexican media and public.
His penchant for flexibility over his tactics and personal — including using three different goalkeepers in the group stage — has prompted plenty of skepticism. And given that he is the sixth man to take charge of the side in three years, he will know that the job of Mexico national team coach is one of the most precarious across the globe.
There will be particular pressure riding on Saturday’s match with Chile, too. Ask any El Tri fan what they crave more than anything else and it will likely be to get past the dreaded fourth game at the World Cup. In the last six tournaments, Mexico has bowed out in the first knockout round.
While the Copa America may not be a World Cup, it is the closest thing Mexico will get to it outside of one. And to win a knockout match, against an opponent of Chile’s pedigree, will breed considerable confidence in a hugely talented generation that is gaining ever more experience on Europe’s biggest stages at club level.
Osorio, who is likely to select a lineup capable of varying its system on Saturday, would rather focus on what the game means for the team, rather than his own prospects.
“The most important thing, and I can not think of anything else, is the implication this game has for Mexican soccer,” he said in his pre-match press conference.
“For me, the implications are of no interest, because here we are talking about a footballing nation that has a great chance to compete against the team ranked fifth the world, the reigning South American champions. We are not thinking if it's good for me or the coaching staff, we are thinking about giving the best for Mexican football.”
There is also plenty of scrutiny on Osorio’s counterpart. Juan Antonio Pizzi always had a difficult task, replacing Jorge Sampaoli, the man who guided Chile to its first ever international title, when winning last year’s Copa America on home soil. But the Argentine born former Spain international made a particularly poor start, making it three defeats in his first four games with a loss to kick off the Copa America against Argentina.
Chile rebounded to get the results it needed to progress, but a victory over Bolivia, secured by a controversial penalty deep into injury time, and a 4-2 win over Panama, featuring defensive lapses and two errors from goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, were still not wholly convincing.
Yet, while Chile may not be functioning with the breathtaking cohesion and intensity as it did under Sampaoli, there remains plenty of talent. Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez shone against Panama, scoring twice, with Eduardo Vargas, who continues to produce his best with the national team, added two more. And then there is Bayern Munich’s Arturo Vidal, who Osorio lavished with praise in the buildup to the match, describing him as one of the three best midfielders in the world.
Kickoff Time: 10 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: FX, Univision, Univision Deportes