How long will Chepo last at Mexico?
For an hour or two on Monday afternoon, it looked like the power brokers in Mexican soccer would acquiesce to popular sentiment and fire José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre as national team manager.
They gathered at the house of FMF president Justino Compean to sort out the future of the beleaguered coach after El Tri's 2-1 loss to Panama at the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal stage and ahead of the vital World Cup qualifier against Honduras at Estadio Azteca on Sept. 6. De la Torre joined them during the afternoon to discuss his fate with the unsettled representatives from the country's top clubs.
Reports started to swirl around about a regime change as afternoon turned to evening. De la Torre received his walking papers, those sources said. Veteran boss Tomás Boy – most recently seen leading financially unstable Atlas to the upper reaches of Liga MX – would take his place, the premature reports alleged.
As the Mexican public started to celebrate, de la Torre's apparent exit disintegrated in thin air. Those errant reports disappeared. Pachuca executive Andrés Fassi took to the airwaves to announce "Chepo" would stay. FMF officials confirmed the news at an evening press conference. And the status quo – not the dynamic hiring of a new manager to shake the team out of its current state – somehow survived yet another day.
The decision to retain de la Torre smacks of the pragmatism often missing from these reactionary sorts of situations. It sounds all well and good to chuck de la Torre out for the downturn in form this year, but the particulars of the situation – appointing a capable replacement from a shallow candidate pool and giving him just over a month and one friendly against the Côte d'Ivoire to implement any changes before the match against Honduras – made the prospect a considerable risk.
De la Torre – even with El Tri's recent struggles – represents a safer option. He still commands respect from most of his players. He still contends he can guide the team to Brazil in accordance with the project set forth long ago. And he still possesses the ability to conjure up the required victory against Hondurans and slide this sputtering campaign back on the proper track.
It is not beyond de la Torre and El Tri to turn matters around in short order. This team may lack chemistry and rhythm at the moment, but it does not in talent. The pressure of the situation ahead at the Azteca in early September could even prompt the same sort of galvanizing effect experienced by the United States earlier this year when the external concerns and the internal strife reached its boiling point.
Any sort of response must come immediately. De la Torre possesses exactly one competitive game to justify his continued employment as Mexico’s manager. Anything short of a victory against Honduras will bring his tenure with El Tri to a close. And he might want to add a few style points along the way just to strengthen his job security.
If this entire imbroglio proved anything, it is that “Chepo” now operates with minimal latitude for failure. Victory against Honduras will almost certainly earn him a stay through the visit to Columbus four days later. Another setback at Crew Stadium would likely open the debate once more, particularly if Mexico finds itself in a tenuous predicament heading into the final two qualifiers against Panama (Oct. 11 in Mexico City) and Costa Rica (Oct. 15 in San José). And de la Torre must continue to show progress through the winter to ensure he receives the opportunity to guide El Tri in Brazil once a World Cup berth is secured.
Previous coaches may not have received this reprieve, but the circumstances here just about warrant it for logistical reasons alone. The outcome will not mollify the Mexican people or reduce the scrutiny placed upon de la Torre and his players over the next five weeks. Only a significant improvement during that period and a triumph over Honduras will prevent those rumors from finally coming true in early September.
"We don't justify the situation but there is still support for the present (coaching) administration," Compean said in the press conference. "There were voices who didn't agree ... I still believe (De la Torre's staff) is the best we have to take us to Brazil 2014. I asked (the board) for trust in the administration headed by Chepo (De la Torre), who has to recognise his mistakes."
As the Mexican public contemplates the events of a surprisingly frenetic Monday, it can at least take solace in the resolution ahead in September: a victory eases the nerves with three qualifiers to play, while a draw or defeat grants the wish ultimately denied them on this peculiar and tumultuous day.