Mexico profiting on golden generation

The Mexican national team has had talent before, and has played with style for decades, but what separates the current talent-laden squad representing ‘El Tri’ from previous reincarnations is a new-found level of confidence. That confidence stems from the arrival of a golden generation of talent and the presence of a manager with the swagger and ability to get the most out of a talented bunch.

Mexico has had confident coaches before, men who talked a great game and strutted around like they had the answer to the long-standing riddle of how to transform Mexico from a second-tier team to legitimate world power. Men like Ricardo La Volpe and Hugo Sanchez, who had egos the size of Estadio Azteca, but who couldn’t deliver the victories or prestige the soccer-loving nation craved.

Jose Manuel “Chepo” de La Torre took over after the 2010 World Cup and brought more than just swagger. He brought structure, an emphasis on defensive discipline and a system that would showcase the blooming generation of attacking talent making it through the Mexican ranks.

The results have been successful, as Mexico’s team now attacks with speed and technical savvy, but with more of a killer instinct than past editions. We saw that in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, when Mexico rattled off four unanswered goals, and witnessed it against during their 2-0 friendly victory against Brazil earlier this summer.

Anchoring Mexico’s recent renaissance has been members of its so-called “golden generation” the group that first came together as Under-17 World Cup champions in 2005. It is a group that features Giovani dos Santos, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Pablo Barrera and Hector Moreno: four key cogs in de La Torre’s machine.

The Mexico side that will take on the USA on Wednesday night will be close to a full-strength team for de La Torre. Only Olympic gold medal winners Jose Corona, Carlos Salcido and dos Santos will be missing from de La Torre’s squad, but all three have quality understudies.

Dos Santos will be the toughest to replace, particularly given his penchant for destroying US defenders. He terrorized the Americans in the past two Gold Cup finals, and was fundamental in Mexico’s victory the last time these teams met in World Cup qualifying at Estadio Azteca in 2009.

Without dos Santos, de La Torre is expected to turn to Santos Laguna midfielder Edgar Gerardo Lugo, who should partner centrally with imposing 6-foot-3 defensive midfielder Jesus Zavala. Lugo, who played for Cruz Azul last season, will be expected to provide the creative spark that will be missing due to the absence of the Tottenham midfielder. That will be no easy task, which makes it very important that forward Aldo de Nigris drops back to provide some support against what will likely be a congested central midfield against the United States.

Another player to keep an eye on, either as a starter or sub off the bench, is Monterrey playmaker Angel Reyna. Adept at setting up goals and scoring them on his own, Reyna recently bagged a hat trick for Monterrey in CONCACAF Champions League play and stands a good bet to contribute off the bench if he isn’t chosen to start.

Mexico cause opponents fits with their speed on the flanks, something Andres Guardado and Barrera can provide in bunches. Guardado has been a nemesis of the USA for years, and has quietly put together an outstanding career in Spain, where he made a big move to Valencia back in May. Guardado can not only threaten defenses with his runs and attempts on goal, he should be able to provide a steady stream of service from the left flank.

Barrera’s career hasn’t quit gone as well as some others. Since torching the United States for two goals in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, Barrera saw his time in Europe end after just two seasons and failed stints at West Ham United and Real Zaragoza. He returned to Mexico, where he hasn’t quite enjoyed the renaissance he and the national team had been hoping for.

As much attention as Mexico’s offense receives, it can be argued that the biggest difference between the current incarnation of ‘El Tri’ and past Mexican teams is on defense. The defensive unit of Moreno (Espanyol) and Francisco Rodriguez (Stuttguart) give Mexico as good a tandem as their is in the CONCACAF region, with Moreno blossoming in Spain and Rodriguez providing size in the middle at 6-foot-3.

That pairing, along with speedy fullbacks Severo Meza and Jorge Torres Nilo, gives Mexico a solid defensive core to hold the leads that the Mexican attack generally provides.

In goal, Guillermo Ochoa remains a quality shot stopper, though he has lost the No. 1 spot to Corona, who just enjoyed an outstanding Olympic tournament. Ochoa will definitely be looking to make a statement on Wednesday night, hoping to merit consideration to become a regular starter.

Wednesday’s USA-Mexico match will look different that most of the recent meetings. The Mexicans will be looking to overwhelm the USA on the flanks, while doing enough to also win the battle in central midfield despite dos Santos absence. Mexico will still be considered heavy favorites regardless of the squad that Jurgen Klinsmann starts at Estadio Azteca.

It’s a safe bet that Mexico will play with skill and swagger. They will play with the confidence that comes with knowing full well that times are changing and the days of Mexico being a second-tier soccer nation appear to be over.