Mexico's preparation for U.S. match reveals usual chaos behind the scenes
It was well past midnight on July 26 when Mexico coach Miguel Herrera shuffled out of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. A few hours earlier, the Mexican national team had defeated Jamaica 3-1, lifting the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the seventh time -- two more than the United States. Herrera, Mexico's 14th coach since 1999, seemed to have done the impossible: With that win, he had ostensibly secured his post, after speculation that it could be on the line if Mexico failed.
The players celebrated the Gold Cup victory with panache, and deservedly so. It had been a shaky few years. Coming off Olympic gold in 2012, Mexico changed coaches three times in one week in September 2013 and fumbled through a disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Top player Carlos Vela refused to play for his country -- all because of behind-the-scenes drama and strained relationships. And through it all, the team dealt with digs from their critics about playing style, failure to overcome weaker opposition, and more recently, alleged friction between the senior players and Herrera. So for the players, this win was a unified response from a unified team: Mexico was back.
Captain Andres Guardado, in particular, had played like the leader the team had so desperately needed. That night in July, the Guadalajara native, named MVP of the tournament, propelled the team to its best performance of the Gold Cup. It was as if a switch had suddenly been turned on, and the players had rediscovered their chemistry as a collective. There was new excitement about Saturday's CONCACAF Cup playoff against the United States, who had flopped out of the competition in the semis against Jamaica.
All seemed well for Mexico.
And then: Thwack! One fumbled swing of Herrera's right arm toward a TV commentator in Philadelphia's airport the next day ended the coach's short stint with Mexico and sent the team back into scandal.
Recent Los Angeles Galaxy signing Giovani dos Santos rapidly tweeted his support of Herrera and his action against the journalist. His brother Jonathan followed suit. They were both left off the roster for September's friendlies. Was it punishment for their tweets? The Mexican soccer federation (FMF) adamantly denied it -- but it was yet another storyline in the saga.
Vela, Giovani's friend, recently agreed to play with Mexico, but he may be reconsidering his long-awaited decision to rejoin the team. After all, it was Herrera and his laid-back management style that persuaded Vela to come back into the fold, after the forward famously rejected call-ups from March 2011 to November 2014. The 26-year-old, who oozes talent, was the central piece of a drama during that time, and nobody knows the real reason he didn't accept. He could pull the plug at any point, as former teammate Carlos Salcido seems to believe.
Since Vela's return, it hasn't exactly been the love affair it was supposed to be. The Cancun native has a reputation for immaturity and failed to adapt to life in London after he signed for Arsenal in 2005, and he appeared out of shape in the Gold Cup. Vela received an impetuous yellow card in the semifinal that kept him out of the final. He didn't seem too bothered, although his actual thoughts about playing for Mexico are unknown; he hasn't uttered so much as a word to the domestic press since his return.
On Saturday, Mexico's prodigal son -- the nearest thing the country has to a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo -- isn't guaranteed to start against the United States. Poor form in La Liga for Real Sociedad and the fact that he didn't start in last month's 2-2 draw against Argentina suggest as much. There were even reports by more than one respected Mexican journalist that Vela wasn't on the original 23-player squad for the U.S. match, but the FMF intervened, causing the original announcement of the roster to be delayed.
Veteran Rafa Marquez, 36, is the only player in history to captain a national team at four World Cups and is Mexico's most successful player ever in terms of major trophies won in Europe. He watched the Gold Cup shenanigans from afar. He had taken part with Mexico's reserve team in a dismal Copa America campaign in June and had been a vocal supporter of Herrera.
The former Barcelona defender is recovering from a groin injury but should be fit to play against the Yanks on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Mexico relies on his experience and his ability to adapt to change. After all, interim manager Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti is the 12th coach Marquez has had at the national team level since his debut for El Tri in 1997. And there's a fair amount of pressure on Ferretti to lead Marquez and the Mexico side to a win. There is some $50 million reportedly set to be lost in television and sponsorship money if Mexico doesn't earn the ticket to the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017 that goes to the winner on Saturday.
But after the game, Ferretti will go back to his coaching gig in Liga MX, where he's been employed for 24 consecutive years, and Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio will take over full time -- for now.
Osorio, whose only previous job in Mexico was a three-month stint with Puebla, will become the 16th coach be in charge of at least one game for Mexico in 16 years. That compares to just three for the United States and highlights in stark contrast the divergent paths of the two CONCACAF rivals.
Mexico's players are in the midst of this constant change, and they will be judged much more than any federation president, especially when they face the U.S. For them, the continual upheaval is a burden in terms of establishing a playing style and a real identity. Tactics, formations and rules around camp all differ as coaches come and go. And certain coaches prefer certain players, meaning there is little consistency.
"The ones that pay are the players and the fans," says Claudio Suarez, who has more Mexico caps than anyone else. "We've been on the brink of missing out on the World Cup three times. I don't know how to explain it to you: I still don't understand."
The casual Mexico fan will wonder why goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa isn't on the roster for Saturday's game. The star for El Tri at the last World Cup -- earning the man-of-the-match award in two of Mexico's four games -- Ochoa went on to sign on a free transfer late in the summer of 2014 for La Liga's Malaga, but he hasn't played a single minute since. For a 30-year-old seemingly assured of his place guarding Mexico's goal at least until Russia 2018, not being included in the squad to play against the United States represents a mighty fall from grace.
In Mexico's hour of need against the United States, Ferretti prefers the Liga MX goalkeeping trio of Alfredo Talavera, Moises Munoz and Javier Orozco. Not one of them has played club soccer outside of Mexico, or in a World Cup.
At the other end of the field is striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. He's another recognizable player whose place is not guaranteed for Saturday. Hernandez burst onto the scene for Mexico ahead of the 2010 World Cup and quickly became the poster boy for Mexican soccer. For the first three years of his international career, Hernandez could do no wrong and quickly honed in on Jared Borgetti's national team scoring record.
But like the rest of the national team, Hernandez suffered a big hit in 2013. He was heavily criticized for the chances he missed that year, including one against Costa Rica in the crucial World Cup qualifier in October, with Mexico's berth on the line. On that same day, the United States scored twice in second-half injury time against Panama to gift Mexico a playoff spot against New Zealand. Hernandez said the experience was "more negative than positive," despite El Tri reaching the World Cup. His international career hasn't truly gotten back on track since.
The commercial side of the Mexican national team seems immune from such highs and lows. El Tri competes with any other national team in the world when it comes to marketing and shirt sales. El Tri's Twitter account has more followers (3.8 million) than Brazil (3.04 million), Argentina (1.69 million), Spain (1.2 million), Germany (1.83 million) and the United States (1.42 million). In the 19 games Mexico has played so far in 2015, only one has been on home soil and 13 have taken place in the United States. The average attendance for those in the U.S. has been a staggering 58,000. On Saturday, El Tri fans will likely be the majority against the Yanks, as they were the last time the teams met in the Rose Bowl in the 2011 Gold Cup final.
But there is a clear disconnect between the successful marketing of the national team off the pitch and the mismanagement on the sporting side. Mexico has never been able to step up at full international level and seriously challenge at the latter stages of the World Cup. Unlike countries such as Germany and Spain, there has never been consistency in developing projects and processes, and as a result, few Mexicans have played at top European clubs.
Even in the region, El Tri has won just 10 of its last 29 matches (inside 90 minutes) against CONCACAF opposition, and in the rivalry against the United States, Mexico hasn't won any of its last six matches, stretching back to 2011. Its record against the U.S. since the turn of the century is five wins, five ties and 13 losses. Yet El Tri arguably has had the better and deeper talent pool to work from.
Mexico's national team remains an enigma. On its good days, it can compete with the very best. But all too often in recent years, the drama off the field has made better headlines than the play on the field.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.