Soccer

Mexico Plays Panama Tonight with its World Cup Fate Hanging in the Balance

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The Mexican National Team plays its most important non-World Cup Finals match in ages Friday night when it hosts Panama at the famed Azteca Stadium. If El Tri loses, it likely ensures they’ll miss out on their first World Cup since 1990.

You’d think, in this do-or-die situation, the Mexican public would rally around the team?

Wrong. Via Pro Soccer Talk, only about 40,000 tickets have been sold for the game at the venue that seats over 100,000.

On the other hand can you blame the fans for staying away? During the final round of qualifiers, Mexico’s record at the Azteca is abysmal. Mexico had previously won 37 of 41 home qualifiers there. This year? Three 0-0 draws — including one against the U.S. — and a 2-1 loss to Honduras last month which finally cost Chepo De La Torre his job.

Victor Manuel Vucetich has been tasked with fixing the mess and guiding El Tri into Brazil. One of his first orders of business? Recalling 34-year-old defender Rafa Marquez back into the fold.

As it stands, Mexico is in fifth place on eight points, level with Panama which sits fourth on goal difference. Both are three behind third-place Honduras, which hosts Costa Rica Friday night. (Honduras won 1-0 to ensure at least a fourth-place finish.)

It leaves the most likely route for Mexico to qualifying finishing fourth place in CONCACAF and then having to play a two-leg playoff with New Zealand.

Yep, for all the talk of Mexico being a darkhorse contender, for all its trophies at the youth level, for its Olympic Gold Medal last summer, El Tri is in serious jeopardy of not making it to Brazil. ESPN odds calculator still gives El Tri almost a 60 percent chance to qualify, although that’s based on the assumption of beating Panama tonight at the Azteca.

From afar, something seems wrong throughout the Mexican Federation. Throughout De La Torre’s tenure prominent European-based players like Guillermo Ochoa and Carlos Vela have flat out refused to play for El Tri. We can debate how good a player like Vela might be, but he’d be useful to have as an option.

More bizarre, once the calendar flipped over to 2013, Mexico seemed to stop playing for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s the lack of a true No. 10 playmaker or underwhelming play by Giovani Dos Santos. The U.S. beating them last month in Columbus to keep the legend of Dos a Cero active didn’t help matters either.

It does make for an interesting comparison to the U.S. National Team, which was on the verge of falling into crisis back in February with that now infamous report published questioning Jurgen Klinsmann’s coaching ability. The U.S. turned it around, won the Gold Cup and qualified with ease last month. Say what you will about the merits of American soccer, but the team does tend to perform its best with its back against the proverbial wall.

Long term, if Mexico were to miss out it might be a good thing for CONCACAF as a whole. Having the same teams represent the Confederation year-after-year at the World Cup — the U.S./Mexico and one other team — does get repetitive. As we’ve seen in the Hex this year, Costa Rica, Honduras and even Panama have taken big strides forward. Costa Rica and Honduras — which both defeated the U.S. on home soil — have shown much more than Mexico has this year.

Mexico’s game with Panama will air on ESPNEWS tonight at 9:15. If you don’t happen to have plans, why not watch and revel in the United States’ biggest rival’s potential misery?

Related: Omar Gonzalez Crushing a Bud Light is a Victory For All America

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