Mexico puts all eyes on Copa America
Unlike the other five CONCACAF teams in the Copa America Centenario, Mexico will enter this summer's tournament unencumbered by World Cup qualification worries.
Say in English that Mexico "strolled into" the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification or in Spanish that it "llega caminando," it's clear that El Tri were hardly challenged in the first four matches of the fourth round.
After those four matches, Mexico can point to four victories, 10 goals for and none against.
Mexico fans in the Estadio Azteca, ever demanding, still jeered their national team after Tuesday's 2-0 victory against Canada. Juan Carlos Osorio, an unpopular hire with some of the familiar faces on the coaching circuit in Mexico, somehow was the victim of criticism.
"He's had a good start, but the opponents also haven't been high-quality or dangerous teams," said Victor Manuel Vucetich, the Queretaro manager who also coached the national team for a portion of 2013.
But the boos and the skepticism won't stick in the players' mind, nor will they change the fact that Mexico's senior team essentially has nothing to worry about for the rest of the year, save the Copa America. (The Under-23 side is a different story, with two defeats in the March international window making it look like a gold-medal defense might be beyond Raul "El Potro" Gutierrez and his crew.)
Other teams in the region don't have that luxury.
"There's a friendly, then the Copa America Centenario comes and after that World Cup qualification returns," Panama manager Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez told TVN on Wednesday. "They're very important matches. We have to prepare for them in the best way possible."
Mexico's goals before the year were to finish this round of qualification unscathed and to place in the top three at the Copa America. The fall trips to San Salvador to face La Selecta and closing out qualification against Honduras won't be totally irrelevant. But the focus now can truly be completely on the summer.
Is a top-three finish an achievable goal? It seems like it could be if the depth Mexico has shown holds up. Osorio has some of the most in-form players in the Americas at his service. Jesus "Tecatito" Corona dazzled at the 2015 Copa America and after three goals in World Cup qualification seems a shoo-in to do even bigger things this summer with Mexico's top squad. Miguel Layun and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez both are shining in Europe. Their connection for the opening goal in a 3-0 win over Canada in Vancouver showcased the best of both, with Layun's service and Chicharito's movement leaving the Canada back line dumbfounded.
And quietly there may be some solidity at the back. Alfredo Talavera is staking a claim for the No. 1 job in goal, and with each match that passes Diego Reyes and Hector Moreno's center-back partnership grows more cohesive. Reyes' understanding of his role in Osorio's system is also much better than it was when he became a regular last year.
Osorio will hope Mexico can compete for the Copa and will be eager not only to shut up critics like Vucetich, who point to the lower-caliber opponents Mexico has toppled, but also to show those in his native South America that he's a quality national team manager. Known for his meticulous preparation, the Colombian can now turn his entire focus toward Uruguay, Venezuela and Jamaica — Mexico's group opponents in the Copa — and beyond.
Will the shift in focus make that much of a difference? Probably not, but getting into the Hex and eliminating any fear of a qualification scare is a positive for Mexico. As much as Vucetich's criticism rings bitter, there's no question the teams Osorio faces this summer will be tougher than the ones he's seen to this point. Mexico now has a leg up on both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL rivals, being able to zero in on the summer tournament without fear of sacrificing the World Cup dream.