El Tri Stutters Against the United States

I was lucky enough to be a part of something special on Wednesday night.  Not only was I with a group of other American Outlaws watching the United States Men’s National Team make history with their 1-0 victory at Estadio Azteca, but we were part of a dual fan base effort at a Rochester area Mexican restaurant.  I said in an earlier post about the U.S.-Mexico rivalry that the two footballing nations are intrinsically intertwined and this came to light on Wednesday as well.  Here are the conclusions I reached about the Mexican national team after two car ride discussions Thursday afternoon with my girlfriend, a lifelong Mexico supporter.

By most accounts, Mexico should have done better than they did against their biggest rivals.  El Tri was missing two players from their first choice XI, Carlos Salcido and Giovani dos Santos, but Mexico still trotted out a much more experienced starting lineup than the United States.  Mexico dominated in all statistics but one; the score.  Mexico had 19 attempts on goal to 7 for the United States, 13 total shots to 7, 10 corner kicks to 0, 34 crosses to 4, 490 passes to 248, 66.2% possession to 33.8%.  The point is, quite simply, that Mexico could not score.

Jorge Torres Nilo is Mexico’s first choice left back and the pairing of Hector Moreno and Maza (Francisco Javier Rodriguez) is the partnership for the next World Cup cycle.  Hiram Mier, an Olympic breakout player, is one for the future but at age 22 he isn’t better than either center back who started.  Severo Meza is the right back that started the last two World Cup Qualifiers and he is some way better than late game substitute Enrique Perez and Efrain Juarez at the moment.  This means that in each of the four defensive positions, Mexico played their strongest option.

Jesus Zavala is a starting XI player for Mexico in central midfield.  The other starter in Chepo de la Torre’s 4-2-3-1 is Carlos Salcido.  The former Fulham left back now plays one of the two holding midfield roles for Mexico and he was missed against the United States  In his place, 24 year old Manuel Viniegra made his debut for El Tri as Salcido recovered from his participation in the Olympic Games.

In the Olympic Final, Mexico was solid for many of the same reasons the U.S. was strong against Mexico Wednesday night.  All of the pressure was on Mexico to beat the United States because El Tri has never lost to the Yanks on home soil.  Similarly, in the Olympics there was an overwhelming pressure on Brazil to win gold.  In the gold medal match, Mexico had already surpassed expectations by guaranteeing themselves at least a silver medal.  In the same way, the U.S. had already met expectations by holding off Mexico for so long and even controlling play for stretches in the first half.  Mexico was forced to press harder in the second half and left themselves vulnerable to a U.S. counterattack.  The Mexican players were almost solely focused on pushing up the field to support the attack, that’s why Severo Meza was embarrassingly swept aside by Brek Shea, Maza was dragged out of position to the byline by the FC Dallas winger, nobody stepped in front of the passing lane to Terrence Boyd, and no Mexican player was able to put a body on Michael Orozco Fiscal.

Missing Giovani dos Santos hurt Mexico a great deal against the United States.  Everything going forward for Mexico runs through Gio.  The two holding midfielders consistently using Gio as their outlet from the back.  Gio can dependably spread the play wide with accurate passes to Guardado and Barrera in the channels.  When the cross isn’t available for the wingers, Gio is usually open at the top of the box to lay the ball off to after cutting inside.  Gio has the composure on the ball and foot skills to open up a yard of space to get his shot off or play a ball into the stride of Chicharito.  During the Olympics, Marco Fabian announced himself to Mexico fans as the heir apparent to Giovani’s role playing in the hole.  If ever Gio is hurt for a major fixture in the future, Fabian should be able to slot into the trequarista position for Mexico rather seamlessly.

Instead of either of those players, who both participated in the Olympics along with Salcido, Mexico had a few choices for that position.  In the World Cup Qualifier against Guyana, Mexico played Chicharito in the hole behind Aldo de Nigris.  This experiment wasn’t very successful but it would have still been an option.  Angel Reyna beat out Edgar Gerardo Lugo and Elias Hernandez for the start behind Chicharito.  Reyna is a decent attacking midfielder who has excelled at the highest levels in Mexican domestic football with América and Monterrey, but that isn’t his natural position or role on the field.

The other three attacking positions are Mexico’s star players; recent Valencia signing Andres Guardado, recent Cruz Azul signing Pablo Barrera, and still Manchester United striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.  These three players were Mexico’s starters in their triumphant Gold Cup run and look to be very important on the road to Brazil 2014.  There were a couple notes to take away from the front three against the United States though.

Barrera wasn’t altogether poor, but he did not have a great game against the U.S. and was subbed out at halftime.  His replacement Elias Hernandez was explosive down the right side and almost instinctively attacked directly at American left back Edgar Castillo.  Mexico’s right flank was much more dangerous in the second half than it was in the first.

And then there’s Chicharito.  The hopes and dreams of an entire nation of football fans rest on the striker’s diminutive shoulders.  There’s certainly an argument to be made for saying Chicharito is out of form.  He didn’t really play consistently for Manchester United last season due to concussion symptoms and the meteoric rise of Danny Welbeck.  Perhaps Chicharito just never showed up for the match mentally.  But then there’s also a lot to be said for the job Geoff Cameron did on Mexico’s forward.  Cameron made his presence known to Chicharito often and early by putting a body on him.

Chicharito is not a big guy so when he gets pushed around by guys half a foot taller than him and maybe 60 pounds heavier than him… he’s going to feel it.  A player only has to get hit three or four times like that before he decides maybe not to go for a header or not to drive at defenders with the ball at his foot.  When Chicharito plays in England, all the defenders are bigger and stronger than him but he’s as good as anyone in the world at making darting runs in the box to open up yards of space for himself.  Perhaps he just didn’t feel the same hunger on Wednesday night that he has in the past for big club games against the likes of Chelsea.

Chicharito’s dramatics after missing his headers late in the game, laying face down on the field, aptly displayed the frustration that all of the Mexican players must have felt internally.  After the U.S. scored Mexico went into full panic mode and everyone was sprinting up the field like chickens with their heads cut off.

I had the game going down as a 2-1 victory to Mexico.  I thought Mexico would control more of the ball and have a lot more chances and corner kicks than their rivals; which came true.  I thought the U.S. would be able to battle back through grit and determination to snatch a goal on the counterattack; which also came true.  However Mexico just couldn’t figure out a way to get past the back four and Tim Howard.

While El Tricolor is still very much a stronger team than the United States, especially looking at future national team prospects, this loss will hurt Mexico.  Despite all of the recent successes of Mexico at the u-17, u-20, u-23 and senior level, there is still the feeling among Mexico fans that they could falter.  How typical of the old Mexico national team to hit their ceiling just as they approach the pinnacle of global football, to fumble as they are nearing favorites status for the 2014 World Cup.

This Mexico squad was very much a first choice team at the kickoff against a United States lineup that was purposely weakened by Jurgen Klinsmann.  Losing to the U.S. B-team hurts even more than the obvious shock of losing in the Azteca for just the ninth time since 1966.  Not only was it the first loss to the United States in their football cathedral, their national cauldron, but the U.S. was missing players at right back, both center backs, central midfield and forward.  I feel a bit sorry for Costa Rica who have to brace themselves for the full wrath of Mexico when they play two World Cup Qualifiers against El Tri in September.  Mexico will be champing at the bit to get back on the field and show the clinical finishing and desire to win that was lacking against the United States on Wednesday night.

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