El Tri: Five Takeaways from the October FIFA break

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 04: Erick Gutierrez and Hirving Lozano warm up during Mexico National Team training session ahead of the international friendly match against Uruguay at CAR on September 4, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 04: Erick Gutierrez and Hirving Lozano warm up during Mexico National Team training session ahead of the international friendly match against Uruguay at CAR on September 4, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

A long FIFA break left El Tri fans with some key issues to think about and discussions to have.

Team Mexico has yet to shake off the World Cup doldrums, losing 5 of 6 matches since beating South Korea in Sochi on June 23. And El Tri has been outscored 4-8 in its four friendly matches since the departure of manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who chose not to renew his contract after the team was bounced from Russia 2018 by Brazil.

Still without a permanent coach, El Tri has lost 3 of 4 matches while taking a long look at youngsters who should be in their prime as Qatar 2022 approaches. The performance has been ragged despite the best efforts of interim coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, who will remain as part-time manager through the November FIFA break during which El Tri will go on the road to play Argentina twice.

During the just-ended October break, Team Mexico outscored Costa Rica 3-2 in Monterrey before losing to Chile 0-1 in Querétaro. Here are 5 observations from the latest performances by El Tri.

Related Story. Chile takes down Mexico. light

1. Need a striker with a nose for goal

Mexico desperately needs to find a goal-scorer. Javier Hernández will be 34 when the next World Cup comes around so it is time to find his successor now. So far, nobody has stepped forward.

Ángel Saldívar and Raúl Jiménez have been given the most opportunities at center forward and neither has stood out. Neither has scored from open play, though Jiménez converted 2 out of 3 penalty kicks while appearing in 3 of the 4 friendlies. Jiménez – now playing in England with Wolverhampton – gets extra points for his willingness to chase the ball and track back to help recover possession, but goals would be more appreciated.

América forward Henry Martín deserves another look, but Liga MX appears to offer slim pickings unless Alan Pulido (Chivas),

On the wings, Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven) and Diego Lainez (América) offer hope for some spark and sizzle in attack, but Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul) has been disappointing wearing green. It’s possible the stage is too big for him, but if he keeps producing at club level, it’s worth giving him a few more looks.

Jesús Corona and Juergen Damm have undeniable skills, but they both lack game savvy. Their decision-making and execution occasionally leaves a lot to be desired.

A final decision will depend on Mexico’s next coach. What kind of attack will he install? Will he want a lone striker with wingers, or a two-pronged attack with a midfield quarterback directing play?

One wonders if Carlos Vela – who would be 33 when Qatar 2022 rolls around – will be in good form in four-years time. He is a proven talent … when he wants to be.

For now, El Tri is left without an obvious goal-scoring option.

2. Midfield seems to be well-stocked

The middle of the pitch would appear to be a strong point for El Tri, especially if you include those players capable of either patrolling the wings as overlapping forwards or joining the attack from the fullback position.

Víctor Guzmán and Erick Aguirre – teammates at Pachuca – have acquitted themselves quite well with El Tri. Guzmán – who picked up an injury in the spring, perhaps missing out on a chance to make the World Cup squad – had been impressive as an attacking midfielder. His goal against Costa Rica was sensational. He is 23.

Aguirre, 21, appears solid in front of the back four, interrupting opponents’ movement into the attacking third and reliable in clearing the zone.

Chivas star Orbelin Pineda, 22, has been missing due to injury, but he can expect to see plenty of action with El Tri thanks to his offensive flair. Monterrey defensive mid Jonathan González, 19, has not gotten much of a chance on the national team, but he will certainly get a look. Michael Pérez, 25, is an attack dog in midfield for the Chivas and he might expect an invite in the coming months.

Marco Fabián wore the captain’s armband against Chile and at 29 he might earn consideration – if he can stay healthy. His time at Eintracht Frankfurt has been interrupted by time spent on injury row, but he can be an effective attacker behind the forwards.

For me, the key to El Tri’s midfield could be Erick Gutiérrez, the 23-year-old Pachuca product now with PSV Eindhoven. I see him as Mexico’s best option for a midfield general. He often gets stuck in a supporting role and he is not a true box-to-box player. His ball control, vision and patience would best be used in a forward position.

Whoever Mexico’s next coach is – are you listening, Tata? – he will have a plethora of options in midfield.

3. Next generation of goalies

Memo Ochoa will be 37 in 2022 and Jesús Corona will be on the wrong side of 40. A couple of years ago, there was genuine concern about a lack of prospects to man the keeper position for the next decade. Now … not so much.

Chivas goalie Raúl Gudiño, 22, seems to have benefited from his apprenticeship in Europe behind Iker Casillas and he has looked strong between the pipes for Guadalajara.

Tijuana’s Miguel Lajud has steadily become very reliable as the Xolos’ unquestioned starter. Necaxa’s Hugo González has been less spectacular for his club, but has looked rather good with El Tri despite two tough-luck losses.

It will be interesting to see if one of these youngsters gets the call next summer when Team Mexico faces a must-win Gold Cup tournament. In order to qualify for the 2021 Confederations Cup, El Tri will have to win the Gold Cup then beat the U.S. in a playoff.

I could certainly understand if the new coach opts for the experienced veteran, but would hope that one of the youngsters is included on the roster, maybe even getting a start in the group stage.

It’ll be worth tracking the performance of the “new” goalies in Liga MX, especially in the hot glare of the Liguilla.

4. Defense still a question mark

Looking ahead to next summer’s Gold Cup, I’m afraid El Tri might have to rely on veteran defenders. Héctor Moreno is 30, probably too old to consider for Qatar, but he is the best option to anchor Mexico’s defense in the near term. He could also serve as a mentor for the young defenders Mexico will need to cultivate for the next World Cup.
Néstor Araujo, 27, missed out on Russia 2018 due to an injury in a friendly vs Croatia, but he is now playing in Spain (Celta de Vigo) and he could be the heir apparent to Claudio Suárez and Rafa Márquez.

But to be effective, Mexico will need to find a good partner for Araujo – and strong back-ups too.

Many pundits pegged Diego Reyes as a future star after the success he enjoyed as a teenager with América. But now 26, his overseas adventure has been rocky and perhaps counterproductive. Reyes has had stints with Porto, Real Sociedad, Deportivo la Coruña and recently joined Fenerbahce after it seemed like he might be left without a club. His passing out of the back is erratic and his marking is suspect. Unless he shows marked improvement, he might never be more than a back-up for El Tri.

Defending Liga MX champs Santos has two promising defenders – Jesús Angulo, 20, and Gerardo Arteaga, 20. Both played against Costa Rica but neither distinguished himself and Arteaga was burned for the first goal. They should continue to get chances.

América’s Edson Álvarez, 20, played quite well at Russia 2018 but since returning to his club there have been whispers about a prima donna act, leading to some discipline issues. If he gets his head on straight, he is a keeper and his versatility would make him a great addition.

Monterrey central defender César Montes, 21, missed out on a chance with El Tri after picking up a groin injury a few weeks ago. He is likely to find a role with Team Mexico.

Another interesting possibility is Antonio Briseño, the captain of Mexico’s 2011 World Cup winning Under-17 team. He struggled to find playing time with Atlas and the Tigres but now is finding some success in Portugal with Feirense. He has been getting media attention as he has gotten more playing time in the Primeira Liga.

All that being said, El Tri is missing young veterans who can stand tall in the back four. No doubt, there is a strong group of young defenders, but Mexico can’t afford to let them develop in official matches.

5. The ongoing coaching search

Some might argue that relying on an interim coach will slow the renovation of Mexico’s team, while others think it’s no big deal.

I fall somewhere in the middle, primarily because I think Tuca Ferretti serves as a good caretaker, until the new manager is officially introduced in early December.

Certainly, Mexico’s next coach – rumored to be Atlanta United coach Gerardo Martino – will have his own tactical strategies and that will influence player selection. The all-important Gold Cup kicks off in June which doesn’t leave much time to experiment with players who might fit into his system. This will require film study and scouting so that trial-and-error is limited.

On the other hand, Qatar 2022 is the ultimate goal, so a Gold Cup failure should not be viewed as disastrous (although the Mexican soccer media will spin it like that, especially if the new coach is a foreigner). World Cup qualifying begins in November 2019 and that will be a more important target, especially as the Federation will surely demand that El Tri qualify in comfortable fashion.

As far as the negatives, the four post-World Cup friendlies have been little more than formalities (in other words, a chance for the Federation to cash in on tickets and promotional opportunities). As a part-time interim coach, Ferretti (who also manages Tigres in Liga MX) can’t devote full attention to developing the national team. With so many new and inexperienced players on the roster, tactical sessions are generalized although Ferretti is a fine tactician despite his (deserved) reputation as a conservative coach.

Nonetheless, the friendlies serve as a good experience for the youngsters and a clear signal that Mexico is moving toward rejuvenating its roster. This should be a positive for our next coach. Now if only the fans and the media can be patient and embrace the process. Qatar, here we come!