Mexico focused on elusive Olympic bid

CARSON, Calif. — No question, the conditions were miserable. The rain came down, the pitch was soppy and slippery, and the fans at Home Depot Center bravely tried to keep up their enthusiasm.

You shouldn’t have to play soccer in this kind of weather, but the Mexican under-23 national team made the most of it. Now here’s the rub: It’s quite possible that the team standing between Mexico and a berth in this summer Olympics just might be the United States.

Mexico’s 3-0 victory Sunday over Honduras virtually assures that El Tri will advance to the CONCACAF men’s Olympic qualifying semifinals on March 31 at Kansas City, Mo. But only two teams from the federation will move on to the Olympics in London, and the U.S. team’s loss to Canada on Saturday in Nashville means the Americans could finished second in Group A.

If Mexico, as expected, wins Group B, it would meet the U.S. with an Olympic spot on the line. Not the best scenario for either team.

“We’re well aware this will be worth nothing if we don’t win on Saturday the 31st,” said Luis Fernando Tena, Mexico’s U-23 coach. “So until now, as we repeat in Latin soccer, we haven’t won anything.

“We advanced, but we still have a most important game. And whoever we go up against, we’ll try to win. We’ll try to win against Panama. After that, we’ll see who our opponent is.”

Mexico meets Panama on Tuesday night at Home Depot Center in what amounts to a dress rehearsal for the semifinals. At the very least, the Mexicans – who have failed to qualify for two of the past three Olympics in men’s soccer – have put themselves in position to get there.

Tena’s job is on the line in this one. If El Tri fails to qualify, he could be gone, just as Hugo Sanchez, considered the country’s foremost soccer icon, was four years ago.

So far, Tena’s team has faced few problems. It routed Trinidad and Tobago 7-1 Friday night and took control of Sunday’s game after a tepid start. Striker Alan Pulido of Tigres scored a hat trick and narrowly missed a fourth goal before he came out for a substitute in the 69th minute.

Pulido turned 21 earlier this month, but he’s considered so adept at maneuvering the ball and finding his target that Manchester United of England’s Premier League is reportedly interested in him.

But the fact is, the Mexicans as a whole are a talented group. They moved the ball well, put together several fast breaks and had Honduras on its heels defensively every time it had possession.

“We have the right players to hold the ball and to attack our rivals in this tournament, which is the idea – to always have control of the game and keep possession the most time as possible,” Tena said.

“I’m happy because I see the team with good chemistry and good intensity. They are good people off the field, and they’ve come together in the team aspect, which is also very important to us.”

Mexico had most of the crowd of 16,184 on its side, although there were Honduras supporters scattered about. You had to figure this was one game to watch at home on TV, given the downpour earlier in the day, but fans endured the elements and got a few breaks when the rain stopped.

“People left happy and that makes us happy,” Tena said, “but we’re going to keep saying the same thing: If we don’t qualify, it’s not going to do us any good. We can’t lose focus on the objective, which is to get that ticket (to London). We have to keep working. We haven’t won anything yet.”