As Mexico prepares for the decisive round of World Cup qualifying, they will face a rematch of the contest that finally brought a successful end to the traumatic campaign to reach Brazil 2014. Three years ago, Mexico required late drama and a helping hand from the United States just to secure a playoff with New Zealand, having faltered badly in the final round of Concacaf qualifying.
El Tri will be desperate to avoid such agony in their quest for Russia 2018. The Hexagonal gets underway next month with Mexico facing fierce rival the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio. But, before that, Juan Carlos Osorio will get his squad together for two friendlies – against Panama in Chicago next Tuesday, and, on Saturday, against New Zealand at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.
And Osorio will be hoping that Mexico can dismiss the challenge of New Zealand as comprehensively as it did in November 2013. Then, Mexico, under new coach Miguel Herrera, put their qualifying strife behind them to win 5-1 in the first leg at the Estadio Azteca and go on to claim a 9-3 aggregate win.
Osorio would no doubt appreciate some momentum ahead of the trip to Columbus, where Mexico has lost 2-0 in each of the last four World Cup qualifying cycles. The Colombian has lost just once since taking charge 11 months ago, but that solitary defeat continues to cast a dark shadow over his reign.
A 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario didn’t cost Osorio his job, but he remains under pressure. Even in a meaningless game, after Mexico had long since secured its passage through to the final round of qualifying, a scoreless result against Honduras last month brought chants of “Fuera Osorio,” (“Osorio out”) after the final whistle. There remains little margin for error.
The match with New Zealand could also carry sizable importance for several players hoping to be involved against the U.S. on Nov. 11. Brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, as well as Marco Fabian and Alan Pulido, have all returned to the squad for the October friendlies after considerable international absences. All three are likely to get a run out after Osorio opted to leave out European-based players like Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and Jesús "Tecatito" Corona.
Fabian has been rewarded for a fine start to the season with Eintracht Frankfurt, while Jonathan dos Santos could get an opportunity to cement a position as Mexico’s holding midfielder after getting regular playing time with Villarreal.
“November 11 is an important date,” Fabian said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We all want to be there and [these games] are a big step to getting there.”
It is the case of Giovani dos Santos, though, that holds the most interest. One of Mexican soccer’s biggest names, the 27-year-old has scored 17 goals for his country but hasn’t featured since electing to leave Europe and join Major League Soccer side LA Galaxy in the summer of 2015. And it was only this summer that he turned down the chance to represent Mexico at the Copa America Centenario.
For New Zealand, the match with Mexico and a friendly against the U.S. on Tuesday is also preparation ahead of beginning the next round of World Cup qualifying. The All Whites, who have only qualified for two World Cups, will face off with Fiji and New Caledonia in a three-team group. The winners of that section will then go on to meet the winner of the other group for the right to go on to a playoff against the fourth-placed team from Concacaf. It is a match Mexico will be hoping that it has no involvement with this time around.
New Zealand should reach the intercontinental playoff comfortably, although Anthony Hudson's squad required a penalty shootout to emerge victorious in June’s OFC Nations Cup final against Papua New Guinea. But Hudson, who has been linked with the vacant post at English second-tier side Derby County this week, will be boosted by the return of captain and West Ham United defender Winston Reid.
Tickets are still available for the matchup. According to Ticketmaster, the most expensive seat runs for $250 while the least expensive is $35. Nissan Stadium is home to the Tennessee Titans and has a capacity of over 69,000.
Prediction: Mexico was not exactly effervescent last time out against Honduras and Osorio still has plenty to prove. Yet, while big names will be missing, the team should be boosted by a number of players with something to prove. New Zealand has conceded just two goals in its last 10 matches, but the opposition has been modest at best. Mexico will represent a major step up in quality from the sides New Zealand has been facing off with of late in its own region.
Anything less than a comfortable Mexico win will be a surprise and mean added pressure on Osorio.
Predicted Score: Mexico 3-1 New Zealand
Venue: Nissan Stadium, Nashville
Date: Saturday, Oct. 5
Time: 6 p.m. EDT