Only two months separate the Mexico men’s national team from their World Cup group-stage opener against Poland on Nov. 22. Before the trip to Qatar, El Tri have two upcoming friendlies in California, against Peru (Sept. 24) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and against Colombia (Sept. 27) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Leading into the games, there have been few signs of Mexico shaking off the rust that made World Cup qualifying and previous friendlies a strenuous ordeal for manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his roster. During a news conference on Tuesday, themes of injury worries, fan discontent and leadership issues surrounded the team that have just one win in their last five.
Mexico have been far from their best, and with the hopes of them gaining some much-needed confidence this month, here are a few questions that continue to linger above them before the World Cup.
Will ill-timed injuries haunt Mexico?
Ideally, Martino would have his top players available for upcoming friendlies as they prepare for the World Cup. Instead, he’ll now have to continue his groundwork without some of his high-profile names.
Martino said star striker Raul Jimenez has “no chance” of playing this week because of injury. Martino made no guarantees that the Wolverhampton Wanderers frontman will be at the World Cup either, stating that “I never thought we would be in this situation. … I do have to give it a lot of thought.”
While with the squad, Jimenez is doing recovery training along Ajax Amsterdam‘s Jorge Sanchez and Monterrey duo Rogelio Funes Mori and Luis Romo, who are all set to depart camp before the game against Colombia. Houston Dynamo FC midfielder Hector Herrera is also a doubt and is currently being evaluated by the medical team.
Along with the serious leg injury for Sevilla‘s Jesus “Tecatito” Corona in August that will likely keep him out of the World Cup — although Martino did note that they are going to re-examine him in early October — Mexico now suddenly have a little over a third of their best XI not fully healthy.
That now means that the next two games will be key in finding those who can step up as possible replacements. Backups like Henry Martin, Santiago Gimenez, Diego Lainez, Orbelin Pineda, Erick Gutierrez, Luis Chavez, Kevin Alvarez and others should all get opportunities to claim minutes and push away any worries regarding injuries. That said, if solutions don’t arise, the skepticism around El Tri will only grow stronger before the World Cup.
Is there an El Tri leadership void?
When things have gotten tough for Mexico, which has essentially been the last year or so, many fans and media have yearned for old school leaders like the eccentrically brash Cuauhtemoc Blanco or the more stoic and resolute Rafael Marquez.
A perceived lack of strong-willed guidance has become a talking point, but is that necessarily valid?
“They say there are no leaders in the national team, that’s not true. They say it because they are looking for the leader from the past: the grouch, a scolder, the one who demonstrates, and that has changed,” said captain Andres Guardado on Tuesday about a supposed lack of commanding names.
Guardado later made a good point by recognizing that he prefers to be a more open and approachable kind of captain. Instead of dishing out the “rigid and cold” conversations he dealt with as a younger player, he likes to be light-hearted and has been more involved in the transition of new players into the squad.
That said, there should probably also be a transition into different leaders for Mexico as well. As important as Guardado is in the locker room, the same can’t be said on the pitch where he is no longer a guaranteed member of the starting XI. Other veterans such as Herrera and Hector Moreno are also on the cusp of being replaced, if not already, in their starting positions.
Guillermo Ochoa is an unquestionable member of the XI, and almost sounded like a politician on Tuesday as he proclaimed that “in the hour that a Mexican has to close ranks, we all close ranks,” but his influence as a leader remains held to the net and not as a field player.
It’s unlikely that we’ll suddenly see the captain’s armband handed to a younger name over the next couple of friendlies, but there should be an ambition for level-headed or hard-working players like Edson Alvarez, Cesar Montes or Gutierrez to step up and potentially be new guiding forces into the World Cup.
And what about that quinto partido?
It’s a national obsession that is synonymous with the national team: the quinto partido.
Translated to “the fifth game,” the saying marks a desperate desire for Mexico to qualify for the quarterfinals of the World Cup — and thereby playing a fifth game — after previously exiting in the round of 16 for seven consecutive tournaments.
As impressive as it is that Mexico has always gone past the group stage since the 1994 World Cup, the fact that the team has gone through a similar fate in seven tournaments seems to symbolize a stagnation, and not growth, for the national team structure.
At the moment, stagnation leading to regression seems to be more relevant for El Tri. Martino himself admitted that he believes his squad were playing at their best through 2019-20 and not in the last year or so — in which they’ve failed to win the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup, while also going four consecutive games without a victory against their U.S. rivals.
Time is running out for him to steer Mexico back on track and possibly reach that fifth game, but if there’s any glimmer of a chance that it could happen, convincing results against Peru and Colombia would be huge steps in the right direction.
Herc Gomez can’t hide his love for the new Mexico away kit and training jacket.
On the path towards doing so, Alvarez opened up on Tuesday about Mexico’s squad visualizing that quinto partido.
“We always think about it, but it’s something that we need to keep calm in our heads, because if we go there [to Qatar] with this in our minds, it’s not good for us,” said the midfielder.
It’s going to be a fine balance between having an aim but not overthinking the goal, and in the process of fighting for the accomplishment, two wins would work wonders in building confidence before the World Cup.
Jimenez spoke about the quinto partido as well. He possibly had the funniest response, and perhaps even the perfect mindset, when asked what the most important factor to making it to the fifth game was: “Winning the fourth one.”