What a difference a year makes. Mexico boss Miguel Herrera essentially ruled the country after the excursion to Brazil. He salvaged the mess of World Cup qualifying and steered El Tri into the round of 16 with endeavor, intent and panache. He curried favor and loyalty with his energy and his work to mold a side capable of impressing against top opponents and securing plaudits for its cohesiveness and its performances.
Those days are long gone now. Herrera is no longer universally revered after a series of missteps sullied his reputation and thrust him into the middle of controversy. His once unimpeachable standing is now reliant on success. He and his players must deliver at the Gold Cup or suffer the consequences.
“We have a team that is very good with the ball,” Herrera told reporters on Wednesday ahead of the Group C opener against Cuba on Thursday (live, 9:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go). “We have very good players with a rhythm that makes a difference. It would be a failure not to win, if it comes to that. Costa Rica and the United States are very strong, but we come with the mentality to win the Gold Cup.”
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It is rather remarkable that Herrera and Mexico are now at a point where his future in some doubt. Herrera created most of the trouble for himself over the past few months with his ill-considered boasts before the Copa América and his shortsighted decision to wade into the political realm on Twitter. The combination of divisive politics and underwhelming results with a second-string side in Chile eroded much of his hard-earned capital and left him to pick up the pieces ahead of this tournament.
MEXICO STARTING XI VS. CUBA
Ochoa; Aguilar, Maza, Reyes, Layún; Herrera, J. dos Santos, Vazquez, Guardado; Peralta, Vela
Injuries to Javier Hernández and Héctor Moreno dealt further blows to El Tri on the eve of the tournament. Hernandez emerged as the primary casualty from the brutal pre-Gold Cup friendly with Honduras. His broken clavicle strips Mexico of its most ruthless finisher, though there is plenty of strength in depth up front. There are no such luxuries in defense with Moreno ruled out after foot surgery. The coveted Espanyol defender obscured some of the inherent weaknesses with his reliable presence. His absence looms large for a team that needs a firm foundation to allow its attacking talent to flourish.
Herrera is still in the midst of trying to figure out his best combinations with Hernandez ruled out. Giovani dos Santos, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela are vying for two places in his stead. Peralta and Vela will start against Cuba, but dos Santos presents a familiar partner for Vela and an intriguing foil for Peralta down the line. There are further selection issues to ponder in midfield — Jonathan dos Santos’ inclusion will push Hector Herrera out to the right to start the tournament, for example — as Herrera aims to foster the necessary balance to pose a menacing threat.
The exact lineup matters little for the opener against undermanned Cuba — the Cubans trained without seven players and coach Raul Gonzalez on Wednesday and posed little threat even at full strength — or the other Group C games against Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago. This is a group weak enough to allow Herrera to sift through his options and spark the rhythm necessary to cope with the demands of the knockout stage.
Mexico is in a position now where it must deliver once the quarterfinals arrive. There is no room for an early exit like the semifinal defeat to Panama two years ago. There is no latitude for a loss at any point, even in the final to the United States. The only acceptable outcome involves a victory in Philadelphia and a spot in a playoff against the U.S. for a berth in the Confederations Cup in 2017.
“In the national team now, there is a lot of talk about the pressure we have to win, play in the final and go to the Confederations Cup,” Mexico midfielder Andrés Guardado said. “Ever since I’ve been here, we have had an obligation to win the Gold Cup. This is no exception. When we are here with the national team and we play in the Gold Cup, Mexico is always one of the favorites. There is always the obligation to win, along with the United States. Now the competition is closer now with Honduras and Costa Rica. We respect our opponents here, but the situation is nothing new for us.”
The familiarity with those exacting demands bodes well for the challenges ahead. Mexico boasts the talent to claim the Gold Cup and ease the pressure on Herrera. At this stage, it is more about establishing those shared principles and implementing a cohesive structure once more. It is not a task beyond Herrera or El Tri. In fact, this group mustered the feat about a year ago. Plenty of time has passed between now and then, but there is no reason why the next few weeks cannot set Mexico back on course once more.