FOX Soccer Exclusive
Vela's shadow looms large over Mexico
Mexico simply can't help itself. Even with a host of issues surrounding El Tri heading into the World Cup, the discussion always comes back around to Carlos Vela. Mexico is impatiently waiting for its temperamental star to rejoin to the fold.
The cycle goes like this: Vela continues to shine for Real Sociedad and underscore his potential value to the national side. A new interview comes out, fanning the chatter. Vela addresses it and then reiterates his open-minded stance about returning to the picture after a three-year absence. Mexico swoons. Then Miguel Herrera tromps through a barrage of questions surrounding his most famous exile -- without rendering a definitive verdict. Both parties make the proper noises but nothing is certain until Vela shows up in a green shirt once again.
Vela's shadow looms large as Herrera gathers his side in Texas for a friendly against Korea Republic (live, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET). His dominant presence ahead of an actual match in San Antonio also offers a telling assessment of the importance of this friendly against a side bearing little resemblance to Group A opponents Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon.
Herrera cannot start the hard work of building cohesiveness ahead of the World Cup with his European-based players largely marooned on the continent. FC Porto graciously excused Diego Reyes from his reserve team duties to feature in a first-team match, but the absence of several key figures not named Vela leaves Herrera with little to do in terms of integrating the squad.
Instead of drafting the likes of Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández and Héctor Moreno into his ranks for the first time, Herrera must spend this friendly at the deeper end of his pool. His decision to revise his roster substantially ahead of this one-off date acknowledges Club América's inability to propel Mexico to the knockout stage by itself and reflects his familiarity with Liga MX.
The composition of this group also betrays some of the selection posers ahead. Jesús Corona and Alfredo Talavera continued the lingering turnover in goal. Reyes emerged as a necessary and viable alternative in central defense once freed from those Portuguese clutches. Miguel Ponce and Jorge Torres Nilo received recalls to diversify the wingback options and provide Miguel Layún with an intriguing dose of flexibility. José Juan Vázquez and Jesus Zavala warranted inclusion to contend with Juan Carlos Medina at the base of the midfield trio. And various known quantities -- from promising substitute Raúl Jiménez to seasoned options like Gerardo Torrado -- yielded the floor to other options desperate for an opportunity to stake their claims.
Most of them will receive the chance to impress against a Korean outfit likely to provide ample resistance. Hong Myung-Bo's side kicked off a three-match tour of the United States with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on Saturday. Kim Shin-Wook turned home a rebound inside the first 10 minutes to ensure a winning start to the excursion. El Tri constitutes a more formidable opponent than Costa Rica even without its top players, but the Koreans -- also without their top European-based players -- possess the necessary tools to threaten.
In order for Herrera to transform this match into a useful exercise, he must blend his regulars with players still clamoring for a prominent place in the pecking order. This affair isn't designed to test whether Rafa Márquez (essentially guaranteed a place in the side, Herrera said in a press conference on Monday), Oribe Peralta or Carlos Peña can influence matches at the highest level. The primary utility rests with identifying players capable of complementing the current core and fitting into the wider picture when the full squad eventually convenes.
Herrera must wait until a friendly against Nigeria on March 5 for that critical juncture. Little wonder then why this friendly falls below Vela's plight on the list of priorities for most outsiders. This match may provide Herrera with necessary information to take forward as he builds his squad for the World Cup, but it will not supply the resolution to the problem everyone wants to solve before the flight leaves for Brazil.