A team in CONCACAF faces a potential must-win World Cup qualifier this week in Kingston, Jamaica. Surprise, surprise it’s not Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States National Team. Instead it’s Jose Manuel de la Torre’s turn to sit on the managerial hot seat. Yes the mighty El Tri, a team which can sell 50,000+ tickets at Houston’s Reliant Stadium for a friendly along with its media rights to ESPN, is also a side in trouble if it doesn’t get a result tonight at the stadium the locals call, “The Office.”
As much as U.S. fans have fretted over the Americans’ 1-1-1 start in CONCACAF qualifying, Mexico is sitting in fifth place on three points from three draws. Of course, it’s all relative since they’re only two points behind Panama in first, but failing to win tonight vs. Jamaica would make Mexico’s path to Brazil much more of an uphill climb.
In the wake of Mexico winning the Olympic gold medal last summer, most soccer observers had big plans for Mexico thanks in part to its economically robust domestic league and strong youth programs. Some even tabbed Mexico as a viable outsider contender for the 2014 World Cup.
Instead, 2013 has been a bit of a damp squib for El Tri. Five matches have produced five draws, along with three 0-0 finishes, including the World Cup qualifier at the Azteca vs. the United States in March.
What Mexico needs tonight vs. Jamaica (8:30, Telemundo) is a confidence boost — along with three points, which would get their qualifying campaign back on track. It’s also the first of three qualifiers in the span of seven days for El Tri. On Friday Mexico travels to Panama City followed by a game at Azteca next Tuesday vs. Costa Rica.
There’s no let-up for El Tri, either. Five days later Mexico faces Italy in Rio for the first group game of the Confederations Cup. That’s followed by a game with host Brazil and then a match with Japan, which became the first country to qualify for the 2014 World Cup on Tuesday.
Much like the United States has relied on Clint Dempsey for goals, Mexico is leaning heavily on Manchester United forward Javier Hernandez. Chicharito has tallied all four of Mexico’s goals from open play in 2013, including a brace last Friday vs. Nigeria in Houston.
Mexico is still undecided who its No. 1 keeper will be, with Jesus Corona and Guillermo Ochoa locked in a competition, though Ochoa figures to get the nod for the qualifiers. Again, like its neighbors North of the Border, El Tri is unsettled defensively, too, thanks to a dip in form from Maza Rodriguez.
El Tri has more offensive talent (and arguably more overall talent) than the United States, which makes its sputtering start to 2013 all the more surprising. Mexico seems caught between ushering in all the new faces who excelled at FIFA under-age tournaments, or using its old guard of tested players to get through qualifying. Rafa Marquez might be gone, but El Tri is still leaning on aging warhorses Carlos Salcido and Gerardo Torrado in key spots.
If you had to bet, you’d still pick Mexico to finish first in CONCACAF and all but assuredly qualify for next summer’s World Cup. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index rates El Tri at better than 75 percent to qualify. If anything, the early qualifying struggles by both Mexico and the United States show how much better the rest of CONCACAF has gotten, in particular the strength of Honduras in this cycle.
“Qualifying is going to get very interesting,” ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told me in a phone interview last month. “I’ve never seen CONCACAF this strong.”
And because of that both the United States and Mexico have their work cut out for them on their way to Brazil, much to the consternation of fans on both sides of the Rio Grande.
[Photo via Getty]