Mexico are a team of problems, all of them good ones to have
Mexico are in the middle of World Cup qualifying. They have Copa America Centenario coming up in the summer. The World Cup is only 27 months away. And El Tri have absolutely no idea what their best XI looks like. They don’t know what an 18-man matchday roster or 23-player tournament squad would look like. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio is making it up as he goes along for now.
The beauty of Mexico is Osorio doesn’t need a plan. He doesn’t need a best team, at least not now. He has to experiment and, for much of the next two years, just try to narrow things down in a continuous process that will take them to the 2018 World Cup. Only then will El Tri need a semblance of consistency and understanding of the best players available to them.
That’s because Mexico are talented. They’re spectacularly talented. It would take a cataclysmic breakdown for them to struggle in CONCACAF – and they know what that looks like, after qualifying for the 2014 World Cup saw them owe the United States for their spot in Brazil. There’s no indication of anything approaching that level of collapse this time around. They’ve always done well in Copa America, to boot, and that was when they went down to South America to play in hostile atmospheres. This time around they’re going to be on American soil, which in soccer terms, might as well be Mexican soil.
There is nothing at all for Mexico to fear, so Osorio just has to dig deep, which he has done. He will uncover everyone he can, play around with tactics and then look to whittle the team down in the run up to the World Cup. It’s a process he’s already in the midst of, and will continue when they take on Canada this week in qualifying.
Osorio’s experimentation and ability to take chances in his team is most obvious by the inclusion of Oberlin Pineda. The midfielder will turn 20 years old the day before Mexico play in Vancouver, making him one of the rare Mexican youngsters who are given a senior-team chance before going through the full U-23 cycle that will conclude at this summer’s Olympics. It’s not even controversial or surprising to see him with El Tri, though. He’s gone from one of Queretaro’s starlets to one of the leading figures at Chivas, evolving from a pure winger to a well-rounded attacker that can be a threat from anywhere on the pitch. Now he’ll get the chance at the international senior level, and while his debut will come with a fair amount of hype, it’s deserved.
Pineda’s place in the team isn’t a matter of desperation or even the odd fancy to see what a kid has. He’s earned his spot on the team and forced the likes of Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos, both of whom were left off the roster for various reasons, to fight for their place in the team. Javier Aquino, Raul Jimenez and Marco Fabian might have a battle on their hands for playing time too. To have a youngster capable of breaking through in that type of competition is impressive enough, but it might not even be as impressive as the sheer collection of attacking talent that Osorio has at his disposal with Andres Guardado, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Isaac Brizuela all on the team too.
The defense looks as imposing, with Diego Reyes in excellent form, but not even assured of a starting place next to the indomitable Hector Moreno. That’s because Hugo Ayala, Nestor Araujo and the ageless Rafa Marquez are all still in the picture.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez still leads the strikers and is in the best form of his life, with Jimenez also lurking. Eduardo Herrera is one of Liga MX’s best strikers too, forcing Oribe Peralta, Javier Orozco and Henry Martin off the squad for now.
With all those players, and that is only touching on the player pool, what is Osorio to do? Try things. Try everything. Invent new things to try for the sake of trying. And Osorio will.
Having to explore and then narrow the Mexican player pool is nothing to sneeze at. The nation’s incredible player development has left them with a player pool that can go 40, or even 50, players deep. There isn’t a single position where they are especially thin, left to start a player who has no business at the international level. What Osorio has to figure out is which of his players are great, and can stand out from the good. Then he has to decide how they’ll play best together when they meet their real challenge in Russia.
Before he worries about the World Cup, though, he has Canada. And Copa America Centenario. And a country watching to see if he’s even up for the job, having been hired with a fair bit of consternation last year.
But it will be some time before we have a read on Osorio or his team’s potential. The picture for the summer is murky, as is the picture for this weekend. Such is the nature of a player pool so bloated, it’s as intimidating to the manager as it is enviable.
Nobody knows what Osorio is going to do yet. But every roster is another clue. Every match presents another hint. It all comes without much worry because Mexico’s talent is so good, but that doesn’t mean there are no stakes. Everything is on the line for each player every time he pulls on the Mexico shirt because there are three, four or even five players gunning for his spot. And they’re all good enough to take it.
Once that sorts itself out, we might actually know what this Mexico team is. Or at least Osorio will.