Mexico will begin a busy 2015 schedule with a friendly international against Ecuador in front of a packed house at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. For head coach Miguel Herrera, the match represents the heating up of preparations to compete on two fronts this summer, at both the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Copa America. After meeting Ecuador and then Paraguay in Kansas City on Tuesday, Herrera will have just a friendly against the United States next month, when his Europe-based players won’t be available, before he gets his squad together for the South American championship in June.
As has been the case since Mexico exited last year’s World Cup at the Round of 16, Herrera’s focus has been on developing two distinct squads capable of challenging at both events, although with the Gold Cup the stated priority. The biggest challenge thus far has been finding enough center-backs of the required quality. With Herrera favoring a 5-3-2 system, as many as 10 center-backs could be required over the two events, and thus far the lack of depth has stood out, not least in Mexico’s last outing, a 3-2 defeat in Belarus.
It hasn’t helped that Mexico’s starting backline from the World Cup has been unavailable since. Rafa Marquez and Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez, two of El Tri’s most experienced players, are this time ruled out through injury, but there is a welcome return for Hector Moreno. The Espanyol center-back has not played for his country since breaking his leg in the 2-1 defeat to Netherlands that ended Mexico’s World Cup. Likely to line up in one of the slots alongside Moreno is Diego Reyes, despite the 22-year-old having made just one league appearance for FC Porto this season.
With Club América’s Oribe Peralta out injured, a lack of playing time has also not prevented Herrera from selecting strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Raul Jiménez. Hernández has not started a match or scored for Real Madrid since December, while across the Spanish capital, Jiménez’s only goal of the season for new club Atletico came last September. The 23-year-old did, though get a first start of 2015 in Atletico Madrid’s last outing against Getafe, and acquitted himself well in a 2-0 win. Still, it is expected to be Hernandez who starts ahead of Villarreal’s Giovani dos Santos up front.
The most tightly fought selection debate, however, is in goal. Guillermo Ochoa, despite his heroics in last year’s World Cup, is yet to make a single league appearance since joining Malaga last summer. And he now faces renewed competition from Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jesus Corona.
Herrera has said that he will keep to his policy of naming two different starting lineups for the two friendlies. And given Porto midfielder Hector Herrera and Watford wing-back Miguel Layun have been given permission to return their clubs ahead of the Paraguay match, the stronger lineup looks set to be selected against Ecuador on Saturday.
Mexico’s opponents are also preparing eagerly for the Copa America this summer. Ecuador made it through the grueling South American qualification campaign to reach last year’s World Cup, where they narrowly missed out on a place in the last 16. The star of their showing was Enner Valencia, who hit three goals to earn a transfer to Premier League club West Ham United. But the striker will miss the match against Mexico, and the contest with Argentina in New Jersey on Tuesday, as he continues his recovery from an injury sustained when stepping on a broken cup earlier this month.
Prediction: Mexico have unsurprisingly tended to look more impressive in the friendlies where they have fielded their first XI as opposed to the backup selection likely to go to the Copa America. That is likely to be the case again in these matches. Moreno will add considerable quality to the backline, while Hector Herrera is now a key figure in the midfield. While Ecuador have plenty of quality, particularly in Swansea City’s Jefferson Montero, they will miss the threat of Valencia. And their defense is far from the stingiest, and could give Hernández a chance or two to end his scoring drought.
Prediction: Mexico over Ecuador, 2-1