FOX Soccer Exclusive
De la Torre's selections signs of panic
Mexico boss José Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre has inflicted a series of indignities upon his expectant public this year. His latest salvo -- the decision to name two naturalized players in his squad for the friendly against Côte d'Ivoire in East Rutherford, N.J. (live, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET) -- could somehow prove the most divisive and the most infuriating yet.
By including Damián Álvarez and Christian Giménez in his plans for the final match prior to the critical home qualifier against Honduras on Sept. 6, de la Torre essentially condemned the Mexican-born talent at his disposal and revealed his desperate plight.
Only a nagging sense of self-preservation could prompt de la Torre to introduce two Argentine-born players at this delicate time and invite the debate surrounding their arrivals. It constitutes an ill-conceived, risky gamble by a man with nothing to lose, a last gasp to turn El Tri around by grabbing on to the third rail with both hands.
Make no mistake: the prospect of including foreign-born players infuriates a significant portion of the country. Mexico isn't like the United States, a country willing enough to adopt any decent player with scant ties as its own. Mexico remains a country with intense nationalistic pride in its ability to cultivate players and field them in the national side. The sight of two Argentine-born players in the squad establishes too much common ground with the bitter rivals to the north, repudiates those deeply-held tenets and wounds a portion of the population deeply.
Christian Giménez (L) and Damián Álvarez (R) are in Jose Manuel de la Torre's plans for Mexico's qualifier against Honduras next month (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Patricio Fuentes/LatinContent).
The vociferous response to the concept isn't about passing on a way to bolster the team -- and there is a real question about whether Álvarez or Giménez actually meet that standard, but that discussion must wait for a moment -- or rejecting the pragmatic approach adopted by other countries out of hand. It is an instinctive, justifiable and protective mechanism borne out of confidence in the players produced and in the country as a whole.
De la Torre diverged from those reflexive preferences long ago. He foreshadowed Giménez's arrival -- one of the primary talking points of the summer -- by noting he would assess all potential additions on their merits, not on their birth places. He underscored that statement by doubling down on his import quota ahead of this match and rejecting the notion that other players already in the pool could provide the qualities presented by both additions in the final third.
Like more than a few of his choices over the past eight months, de la Torre's decision to stray into controversial territory appears somewhat suspect. Álvarez (a seasoned left winger for Tigres) and Giménez (a roving instigator and schemer for Cruz Azul) possess enough talent to enter the discussion for a place in the squad, but they do not represent a significant improvement on the options already available given their ages (on the wrong side of 30) and their projected places within the team (reserve options at best).
Consider the possible outcry if one or both of those two players takes the field at MetLife Stadium while Veracruz star Angel Reyna twiddles his thumbs on the bench. Reyna, a Mexico City native, stands out as the top performer in this nascent Liga Bancomer MX season, the key man in the league's most twisted success story. His performances have carried him to the top of the goalscoring charts and his team to the top of the table.
Reyna essentially finds himself in competition with Álvarez and Giménez for playing time in the attacking third. It isn't much of a contest at the moment, though. He is younger (28), he is more accomplished on the international scene (21 appearances versus Álvarez's lone cap in a friendly last year, per FMF statistics) and he is in better form after finally settling at a club.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, de la Torre decided to increase his options instead of relying on Reyna and Marco Fabián (one of the few players to emerge from the CONCACAF Gold Cup disaster with any credit, though he has not hit those heights upon his return to Guadalajara) to provide cover with Andrés Guardado (recovering from a knee injury sustained last month) and Luis Montes (withdrawn through injury over the weekend) unavailable to feature.
Once again, de la Torre has created needless distractions at a time when focus should remain the top priority. The discussions should surround Oribe Peralta's potentially influential return to the side (he could start with Javier Hernández omitted through injury if he overcomes a knock suffered at the weekend) and the preparations for the decisive qualifier against Honduras early next month. They instead involve contentious and polarizing concerns about players on the fringes of the squad and spark exactly the sort of sideshow El Tri can scarcely afford given the gravity of the task at hand.
For those reasons and many more, de la Torre should have steered clear of Álvarez and Giménez and stuck with the players already at his disposal. His success or failure hinges on the stars who plunged him into this mess in the first place, but his decision to turn to naturalized players right now hinders their efforts to slide matters back on track. Most painfully, it supplies yet another humbling and unnecessary rebuke to a proud country that deserves more consideration in the wake of the unexpected setbacks incurred already this year.