FOX Soccer Exclusive
Mexico U-20 squad faces early exit
None of the attached drama engulfing El Tri at the moment followed the Mexican under-20 national team to Turkey. The high-profile struggles of José Manuel de la Torre's side and the corresponding discontent on the home front instead obscured the task ahead of the latest crop of promising talents to work their way through the youth development system.
Pressure follows every Mexican national team in one form or another, but this particular journey to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup benefited significantly from the attention lavished on the senior team's Confederations Cup toil in Brazil. Mexico boss Sergio Almaguer altered his squad a bit from the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, prepared his players without much scrutiny and took his team to Europe with high hopes of a deep tournament run.
The carefully laid groundwork collapsed upon arrival in Turkey. The players – several buoyed by the experience of winning the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil two years ago – stumbled in their attempts to translate their talent into the corresponding performances. And now they face an unexpected exit from the tournament ahead of the third and final group game against Mali on Friday.
Two consecutive defeats created this trying scenario and deviated from the expected route through a manageable Group D slate. Greece mitigated the disparity in possession and survived a magical Jonathan Espericueta free kick to register a 2-1 victory in Gaziantep on Saturday. Paraguay essentially played an out-of-sorts El Tri off the park in the second half, yet it survived a late Espericueta free kick off the crossbar to register a 1-0 victory at the same venue on Tuesday.
Only a victory over Mali in the suddenly hexed ground near the Syrian border can extricate Mexico from its current predicament and sustain its modest hopes of a place in the round of 16. The path to the knockout stage likely involves a heavy victory over the African side – an outfit with just one goal conceded in a pair of draws with Paraguay (1-1) and Greece (0-0) – and significant help to finish as one of the top four third-placed teams.
All of those contingencies could proceed according to the desired scenario, but Mexico must still fulfill its own duties by producing a display befitting the significant quality within its ranks. Talent isn't the concern here with European scouts sniffing around the likes of Espericueta and Monterrey winger Jesús Corona. It is once again a matter of concocting a way to produce results when the first option – keeping the ball, moving it into the wide areas and then picking apart the opposition – does not yield the anticipated production.
Like their comrades in the first team, this Mexico side flails around when it tries to devise alternative routes to goal. Marco Bueno provides the necessary touchstone up top, but both Greece and Paraguay worked diligently to limit his influence on the proceedings. Corona's scant contributions – he departed at halftime against Paraguay – deprive this group of some much needed sharpness in the wide areas, while the rather pedestrian work in the middle of the park leaves the entire outfit short of the drive, the inspiration and the thrust required. Not even the introduction of Luis Madrigal as a rather direct option off the bench has jolted the side to life.
The paucity of incisiveness in the final third heaps a rather uncomfortable burden on a rearguard that has shown some pliancy since the 3-1 victory over the United States in the CONCACAF U-20 Championship final in March. Greece created a pair of chances and took them in the opener. Paraguay cobbled together a fine move on the counter to create Derlis Gonzalez's winner after 52 minutes and found a way to procure a handful of other opportunities as the second half progressed. The recurring tendency to allow the opposition one or two inviting openings simply won't suffice in a match where Mexico must address its goal difference concerns and emerge with a victory at all costs.
In order to emerge from the current mess and grab a new lease on life in the knockout round, Mexico must somehow find its rhythm after two matches spent searching for it. A combination of better individual work and more precision as a collective unit could provide the solution to the current problems.
Those remedies sound all too familiar in light of the concerns currently afflicting the senior side. Discussions about the wider implications of those similarities may unfold if the unthinkable happens on Friday, but the focus remains squarely fixed on overcoming Mali and sliding this sputtering World Cup campaign back on track before it ends prematurely.