With the World Cup finally upon us (God, I love the World Cup!), I wanted to talk a bit about my love for Mexican football. I am not the perfect Mexican, I understand that, I’ve always understood that (But then again, what Chicano is?). I was born here, my Spanish is somewhere between average and poor depending how long it’s been since my last trip abroad, my surname is Penney, I’m 6’3”, I don’t have any Mexican-American friends, I’m a registered Republican, my visits to Mexico have become more and more infrequent, and growing up in the Northeast Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican culture dominated the New York metro Hispanic landscape (And they still do).
My connection to Mexican culture and my Mexican heritage has come mainly from two sources: My mother’s food is the first (or if we were visiting Guadalajara: Mama Cuca’s or Juanis’ food). Frijoles, chilequiles, chiles rellenos, tacos de crema, ropa vieja, tortas ahogadas, ceviche, and many more dishes than I care to count. And I am extremely grateful that I am now cooking many of these dishes myself.
But the other major way I’ve connected with my Mexican self is through the national team. Every four years, I get to watch twenty-three wonderful players in green Mexico kits take part in what I think is the greatest sporting spectacle on earth: The FIFA World Cup. In my life I have been cognizant of six World Cups: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. Despite my fandom of football waxing and waning throughout my life, my love for all things El Tri has always burned bright. In each of these years I have vivid memories of watching Mexico. Many of these memories were exhilarating with equally as many heart wrenching.
I remember, despite being only 10 years-old, how confused I was to see Mexico lose to Bulgaria on penalties in ’94. I’ve definitely blanked out losing to Germany on an ’87th minute winner in ‘98. But I’ll never forget Mexico’s back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down against perennial European powers Belgium and Holland.
In 2002 we famously lost to the United States after a superb group stage performance. I’m still not over it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
In 2006, I remember watching the first two group stage matches in Guadalajara while visiting family. I remember going to get ice cream at halftime of the Iran game and the city seeming a ghost town. We could have robbed half the city’s banks and no one would have known.
And I’ll never forget how good I felt watching Mexico play Argentina to extra time in the Round of 16 only to get my heart broken once again, this time by a Maxi Rodriguez wonder strike.
In 2010 I watched the games from Dublin pubs and I marveled at the kids of the “golden generation” running around making defending World Cup runner-up France look slow. I’ll never forget seeing Chicharito’s giddy face after he maneuvered around Hugo Lloris for his first World Cup goal.
The 2014 tournament will always be about “Piojo” Herrera, Memo Ochoa, and #NoEraPenal (It wasn’t a penalty!).
But why has this team had such a deep and beloved place in my heart? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. Maybe it was my way of seeing Mexicans in their best light, when I often didn’t get a chance to. Maybe it was a part of being part of something bigger-namely, the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of Mexico-even if I wasn’t connected to it on a day-to-day basis. (And make no mistake; fútbol is as much a part of Mexico’s heritage as the Maya or Mariachi.) I didn’t grow up in Texas or Southern California where Mexican, Mexican-American, and American culture intertwine almost seamlessly. I didn’t get to see successful Mexican American attorneys, doctors, architects day-in and day-out. So perhaps because of that I clutched to the one source of pride I saw front and center every four years.
My passion for El Tri isn’t political. It isn’t overcompensation. It isn’t a statement I’m trying to make for others. It’s personal. And it’s pure. It’s about feel. In fact, I’m probably about as big an America apologist as you’ll find. Nationalism isn’t a sin. It’s a virtue. I believe that. But while America is my country, México y Chivas “son mis equipos”. I feel it in my blood.
I honestly have to say, I can’t ever remember even considering being a USMNT fan. It never really even crossed my mind. Rooting for Mexico against the United States, I never felt guilty about it, it just felt natural. (That being said, as a soccer evangelist in a nation of American sports fans, I found myself crushed at the US’s failure to qualify. I will deeply miss the festive atmosphere which often accompanies US games. But c’est la vie.)
The beauty with which Mexicans play the game is much more aesthetically pleasing than the rough and ragged American way of playing. Even in high school I always knew there was something wrong and robotic about the way the game was played. Football is half sport, but it’s also half art. It’s entertainment. It’s meant to please and amaze. Mexican football has always been about pleasure, just watch Liga MX for proof. When I think of what Mexican football is, something like Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s cuauhtemiña comes to mind-a superb display of brashness and flair. I think I always saw in the Mexico team characteristics which I hoped existed within me. As if perhaps my just being half-Mexican would give me the ability to rely on these traits if desired.
And if entertainment is the purpose of football, then the World Cup has always been the games grandest stage. Or perhaps calling it an altar would be more apropos. While UEFA Champions League may be the brain of the game, the World Cup is its heart. No sponsors on the kits and no ability to import players on huge transfer fees. It is simple. Country vs. Country. Style vs. Style. Mexico, or not, I will soak in as many games as is humanly possible and I would encourage all USMNT fans to do the same. For four weeks we get to lay back and marvel at the world’s best and most famous athletes this side of Madison Square Garden. I’m just as excited to watch Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, James, Kane, Ozil, Iniesta, Mane, Salah, and Suarez as anything else. It truly is football Christmas.
With that being said, do I want Mexico to win? Yes. Do I think they will? No, probably not. But we must aspire to win. Mexican-American culture is first and foremost about aspiration. But while I connect through my blood, I must recognize that it is Mexico’s team first, before it is the Mexican American team. Although I do hope that perhaps one day, either El Tri or the USMNT will create an Oscar De La Hoya type figure that can transcend both sides of the Rio Grande equally. Perhaps Jonathan Gonzalez is that figure. Perhaps it will be an as of yet unknown American player. Either way I eagerly await that player.
But for now, I look at the roster Juan Carlos Osorio has assembled for Russia and I see that it represents so much about what Mexico is today. The spine of the team is part of a “golden generation” which has shown so much promise, much like the country they represent. They are far more international than any Mexican team that’s come before, with seventeen of the players having played in Europe during their careers. Three of the players are making huge money in the United States-like so many Mexicans dream to do. Yet, like Mexico, despite the talent the team has, it has never truly achieved its potential. Some of that may be misplaced machismo. Some of it is federation mismanagement. And for good measure our team captain Rafa Marquez has been sanctioned by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged ties to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, it shows that even in our beloved game of football, we can’t always escape some of the harsh truths about the problems Mexico, as a nation, faces. But all of these things are what make the team the perfect reflection of the country they play for-for better or worse. Yet the program creeps closer and closer to what it can be with every passing year. For six tournaments now, Mexico has stumbled in the exact same place: the Round of 16, always failing to take Mexico into that elite eight they’ve been knocking on the door of for so long. I think that anything beyond that “quinto partido” will be transcendent. But if that’s where the tournament ends this summer once again, I’ll be OK with that too because I know I’ll have enjoyed the ride. I always do. And then I’ll do what everyone else does: watch the remainder of the World Cup games with delight.
Juan Carlos Osorio is under fire. That is no secret. In fact whoever is the National Team manager is under fire the second they are hired. I really think that sometimes coaches are hired just so they can be fired.
Either way, despite the fan and media hysteria, the truth of the matter is Juan Carlos Osorio is actually doing a pretty good job. If the #1 objective of a National Team Manager is to qualify his team to the FIFA World Cup, then JCO has already gotten mission accomplished. He’ll have a big chance in two weeks to earn himself some good press for a half second if he’s able to officially secure Mexico’s World Cup berth.
At this exact time last cycle “Chepo” de la Torre had just: flamed out in the Group Stage of the 2013 Confederations Cup, bungled his Gold Cup with a Mexico B squad by losing to Panama, and was on his way to getting fired when he proceeded to lose to Honduras at the Azteca in September. Then after losing to the United States (dos a cero) under Luis Fernando Tena, Mexico then hired Victor Manuel Vucetich for the final two qualifiers which required Mexico needing a Raul Jimenez golazo and a Graham Zusi to bail the entire country out.
Instead, JCO has four games left in which he could play the Chivas u-19s in all of them and qualify El Tri to Russia. Somehow, this is such an atrocity that it requires vulgar shouting every time he walks by some clown wearing a green jersey. But I digress.
While there are some things Osorio does which irk me, (I think sometimes he rotates without a clear enough purpose, for instance. And his tendency to play people out of position can be annoying.) I happen to think he’s doing a good job. The players are still coming to his aide. And that’s vital.
Now that we have all that nonsense out of the way, assuming JCO isn’t fired or (perhaps rightfully) quits between now and FIFA World Cup 2018, let’s see if we can’t figure out what he’s thinking is his World Cup roster if he had to draw it up today. With Liga MX already kicking into high gear and two qualifiers forthcoming now seems as good a time as ever.
So, without further ado, let’s evaluate, how I think is how Juan Carlos Osorio is currently viewing the player pool in its entirety:
Now, once I was able to group all the names and see them in front of me, I was able to better find a way to a top 23. Here’s what I came up with as Juan Carlos Osorio’s top 23 as of this moment:
So, how did I come up with this? Well, I’ll tell you generally now before going player by player in a bit. Mexico, more so than the United States, was able to more clearly delineate the “first string” from the “second-string” because El Tri was entered into two international tournaments this summer: FIFA Confederation’s Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Osorio therefore was kind of forced to play his hand as to what was his “Top 23” and then his “Next 22” as the two rosters only shared one player-Luis Reyes of Atlas. He also put all 12 of his European contingent in the Confederation’s Cup squad while the Gold Cup squad, save for one member of MLS’ Houston Dynamo, was composed of Liga MX players. So it was a decent bit easier to get into his head as to who his best squad was.
The following was Mexico’s roster for the confederations cup:
From that 23, only five players were replaced. Rodolfo Cota, Rafael Marquez, Oswaldo Alanis, Luis Reyes, and Jurgen Damm were all removed from the 23 and in their placed the following five came in: Jose de Jesus Corona, Edson Alavarez, Jesus Gallardo, Jesus Dueñas, and Jose “Tecatito” Corona.
The next important thing was to determine what is Mr. Osorio’s preferred formation? And amazingly enough, despite all the formation changes, lineup changes, and position changes, we really did notice a top XI emerge in a preferred 4-3-3. The excellent Sir Tom Marshall of ESPN seemed to agree.
Here’s what it would look like:
Based off that, let’s go player by player and explain why I think JCO has them on his roster.
Forwards: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as a prospective starter for El Tri should come as no surprise to anyone. Not only is he one of the world’s (or at least North America’s) most popular players, but he has a really good goals to minutes ratio. (Don’t make me look it up. OK fine, here it is.) I don’t really need to defend his roster slot or his selection as a starter.
Raul Jimenez is the next player on the depth chart and he’s pretty much a lock too. He’s a big, strong, skilled player who will deploy his coach’s game plan sans complaint. He will even play as a right winger if need be. He’s also the only one who could step in and play as a lone striker if Chicharito were to go down.
After that we come to two players who are undoubtedly forwards, but are not really strikers either: Giovani Dos Santos of the LA Galaxy and Marco Fabian of Eintracht Frankfurt. Dos Santos while capable of playing as a winger or even an advanced midfielder in a pinch, is best deployed as a second striker making late runs into the box and the freedom to create. Fabian is very similar. Though I think he’s better suited to midfield work. I think both will make the team based off experience provided they maintain good form at club level. Dos Santos in particular has his detractors, especially since his move to MLS. But his ideal replacement candidates the young trio of Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Erick Gutierrez did not step up in the Gold Cup and I think Gio played just fine in Russia.
Lastly, I placed Oribe Peralta in as a fifth forward or third striker. While he’s getting up there in age, (he’ll be 34 in January) he will be there for his intangibles if he stays healthy. The guy is a gamer and has a World Cup goal on his resume. ‘El Cepillo” (The Brush) as Peralta’s known reminds me a lot of Clint Dempsey in his effort and ability to come up clutch time and time again.
Wingers: If there’s one position where Mexico seems to have an almost endless amount of depth it is at winger. Not that all things are equal. But someone like Isaac Brizuela, the American-born right winger that was part of Mexico’s 2014 squad, is clearly outside the top 5 despite being a dangerous weapon for Guadalajara.
Jurgen Damm of Tigres UANL is a fine player and has been flirting with a European move this summer. Yet he only made Mexico’s Confederation’s Cup squad because of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence (which had a trickledown effect because the Gold Cup squad could’ve used him) for “personal reasons.”
Carlos Vela, despite being an inverted winger, is clearly at the top of the list. The Real Sociedad man is probably Mexico’s most talented player. He’s shown a lot more maturity the past couple seasons both with club and country and should be one of the top three or four names on the team sheet. (Although Osorio does seem to bench him for certain matchups for tactical reason. I think that’s one of the many things he does which irks Mexico fans.)
Next on the list is Tecatito. I can’t imagine he’s not starting at LW or LM when September 1st rolls around or even at the first game of next summer’s World Cup for that matter. The guy is one of those tricky attackers unafraid to take people on. Every team needs a guy like that.
Hirving Lozano I think also will be an Osorio regular, especially now that he’s moved to PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. His speed makes him an ideal late game sub and for a guy with his skills he’s a solid finisher as well.
And I think the last winger spot, despite Jurgen Damm’s talent will go to his Tigres teammate Javier Aquino. Aquino has seemingly been around forever, but he’s still only 27. He is a great two-way winger who, despite the talent on Tigres can still play games where he looks like the team’s best player. I think a guy like that is indespensible to a roster. His defensive tracking also makes him important if Osorio ever wants to go back to three centerbacks. His ability to go endline-to-endline for 90 minutes makes him capable of being a wingback or a winger in a 3-4-3.
One other player worth mentioning is Elias Hernandez of Club Leon. He had a very solid summer and is capable of playing on either wing. But I just think there’s too many other players ahead of him on the depth chart.
Midfielders: So there are three players who cannot be dispensed with in the midfield: Captain Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Jonathan Dos Santos. All of them are so talented that Juan Carlos Osorio felt the need to play Hector Herrera as a CDM in order to get them all on the field at once.
The one who played best of the three at the Confederation’s Cup was Jonathan. But to the dismay of many El Tri fans, the younger Dos Santos brother just joined his sibling at the LA Galaxy in MLS. It will be interesting if Osorio will maintain Jonathan in as high esteem after that.
Considering the depth at the position, I’m not sure JDS is really in any trouble of missing out on the roster. Losing his starting role? Maybe. But not his roster position.
One of biggest controversies that arose out of the Conderation’s Cup roster selection was the fact that Osorio didn’t bring a fourth central midfielder and more specifically, he didn’t bring a true #6. It was perplexing given his seeming affection for both Jesus Molina (a true CDM) and Jesus Dueñas (capable of playing multiple roles, but a more than solid experienced CDM). It angered people because once again, it led to Juan Carlos Osorio playing a key player, Hector Herrera, out of position.
I expect him to rectify this mistake in his next roster call up. He’ll do so, I think, by calling up either Jesus Dueñas or Jesus Molina. I went back and forth on this, but I think he’ll prefer Dueñas. While Osorio likes Molina’s height, positional discipline and has complimented Molina several times in the past-even going so far as to say he was ready for European football; I think he’ll prefer Duenas. I think it’s because he’s more versatile and he had a pretty good Gold Cup (or at least as good a Gold Cup as any Mexican player could have had).
Despite three of a possible four central midfield spots generally being spoken for there are some names to keep an eye on. The youthful trio of Pachuca’s Erick Gutierrez and Chivas’ Orbelin Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro are all possibilities. At 22, 21, and 23 years old respectively, they show a lot of promise and all three are leaders on their clubs. But none of them stepped up as expected in the Gold Cup leaving many to think that they just won’t be ready for this cycle.
There are two names I think worth mentioning, even though I think they’re, as of now, very much on the outs: Carlos Pena of Rangers F.C. and Chivas’ Jose Juan Vazquez. Pena, 27, had been at times a semi-regular for Osorio but after a bad spell at Chivas, he fell out of favor. His physical style of play always appealed to Osorio. So, it will be interesting if Pena, now at the Scottish Premier League side Rangers will be able to catch Osorio’s eye. While the SPL may not be a top European league, Osorio may appreciate Pena’s gumption at going to face a challenge at a pressure cauldron like the Ibrox.
Fullbacks: After Miguel Layun, there aren’t a whole lot of good fullback options for El Tri right now. Layun, the FC Porto man, is capable of playing either fullback position equally well, but as a right-footed player he gives Mexico an extra little something as a ball-possessing LB.
In fact, the depth chart at both fullback spots is so lacking that Juan Carlos Osorio only brought two to Russia and on several occasions played CBs at both RB and LB. However I’m not sure if I expect him to rectify this with his next set of call-ups.
The only other regular or semi-regular fullback was Paul Aguilar. But he’s been out with a serious injury for almost a year now and there’s no telling how Osorio will receive the 31 year-old when he returns.
I think if anyone is going to provide depth at fullback on this roster it will be the 22 year-old Jesus Gallardo from UNAM. He was one of the few bright spots in the Gold Cup, but he’s not a full-time LB. He spends a lot of time at LM as well. Either way I think that versatility will serve him well and I think he’ll get the call-up next time. It will be left to be seen from there if he can maintain that roster slot for another eleven months.
One last option to keep an eye on is Guadalajara’s 20 year old LB Alejandro Mayorga. Osorio liked him so much he took him to the Confederation’s Cup just to get the kid exposed to the experience of the whole thing. But here’s the rub: Mayorga doesn’t have a single senior team appearance for his club. Granted he has the entirety of the Apertura and Clausura to earn a spot, but for a 20 year-old with no pro experience yet that’s a lot to ask.
I think any other depth at fullback will be provided by CBs.
Centerbacks: This position has been much criticized by the El Tri fans, but I think despite that the centerback corp. is fairly set. Hector Moreno is clearly the first name on the team sheet. And while Nestor Araujo and Diego Reyes battle for the right-footed CB spot, both are capable and both seem to have their place in the team secured.
Araujo is the bigger, more physical English-style centerback, while Diego Reyes, despite his height is the more skilled player; capable of playing RB or CDM. It seems as if Osorio as a part of his rotaciones likes each in different matchups.
Carlos Salcedo the former Real Salt Lake and current Chivas player was recently loaned to Marco Fabian’s Eintracht Frankfurt after being loaned to Fiorentina this past season. He has played far more RB for El Tri than CB despite it being his natural position. He’s not bad it
This brings us to another even younger centerback: Edson Alvarez. The 19 year old Club America product played the entire Gold Cup out of position at RB yet he seemed to have earned the most plaudits with his play and demeanor off the pitch. He’s big, at 6’3” and hadn’t played RB in any of his 21 Club America appearances. But I think because of the depth at centerback and the lack of it at RB, Alvarez’s best chance of making the World Cup squad is at RB.
The only thing I’m nervous about when it came to selecting this roster is that I didn’t pick a second left-footed centerback. Osorio on multiple occasions has stated his preference for having two left-footed centerbacks on the roster. But I didn’t pick one. Oswaldo Alanis after his great performance in Chivas de Guadalajara’s playoff run got to go to Russia, but didn’t cover himself in glory. But really, there’s no one else except maybe Yasser Corona who last got some run with El Tri at the 2015 Gold Cup-so it’s been a while. I think if Alanis does make it, having it be at the expense of Jesus Gallardo would make the most sense. Especially since six centerbacks wouldn’t be overkill knowing Osorio’s penchant for three CB formations.
And finally, we should discuss quickly the undead creature that is Rafael Marquez. The Mexican legend is almost 39 years-old and has 143 National Team appearances to his name. He was taken to the Confederation’s Cup but he didn’t play until the third place match mostly due to injuries. I can honestly say that I was having trouble imagining a scenario in which he’s doesn’t somehow squeak his way into the picture. He’d almost have to be arrested to be stopped.
Goalkeepers: I think the goalkeepers are all set. I can’t picture anyone besides Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, and Jose de Jesus Corona getting picked. While it would be nice to have a fourth keeper banging on the door to keep the competition sharp, it just hasn’t happened. Jonathan Orozco has been around forever and never really threatened. Rodolfo Cota seemed to be picked for the Confederations Cup more as filler so Corona could be the Gold Cup starter. Moises Munoz seems too old now, despite his steady presence. And Jesse Gonzalez of FC Dallas is, well American now. Raul Gudino at FC Porto still hasn’t played a game at senior level yet and I’m having trouble coming up with more names.
The one big development this summer has been that Guillermo Ochoa has finally seemed to cement his spot as the #1. He and Talavera had at times seemed to be rotated for tactical reasons with the bigger Talavera used against the US in Columbus and New Zealand in Russia. But in the knockout round Ochoa started both matches.
As if I haven’t already gone into a deep enough dive on the El Tri player pool, here’s my stab at Osorio’s seven injury replacements:
Rafael Marquez, CB (Club Atlas)
Oswaldo Alanis, CB (CD Guadalajara)
Jesus Molina, CDM (Monterrey)
Jurgen Damm (Tigres UANL)
Elias Hernandez (Club Leon)
Alan Pulido (CD Guadalajara)
And 1 of:
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CF Pachuca)
Orbelin Pineda, CM (CD Guadalajara)
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CD Guadalajara)
How Would I Do It?
Now, I know what you’re all asking: So, Jon how would YOU go about selecting a roster? Never fear, I’m about to tell you.
If I were the Mexican National Team Manager this would be my roster for the World Cup right now barring injuries (which have seemed to crop up in several cases).
My only would make three changes from what I anticipate Osorio will do. I would take Paul Aguilar if he’s healthy. I know he’s getting up there but his ability to play RB or RWB and join the attack is a great weapon. And at 31, he’s still got good pace (at least hopefully he will still have it despite the injury).
I would also take Jorge Torres-Nilo which I know would cause the El Tri faithful to unanimously emit a choral groan of “Ugh, him again.” type apathy. I know what his critics will say. He’s already got 45 caps and has never given a reason to get excited about him. But I like him for several reasons:
1) He’s experienced both at the National Team level and at club level. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti of Tigres is a good coach and he has a very talented squad at his disposal and they’ve played a lot of big games both domestically and internationally. And through it all Torres-Nilo has maintained his spot in the XI steadily throughout Tuca’s reign in Monterrey.
2) He’s big. At 5’11” Torres-Nilo is capable not just playing LB but LCB in a back three. So, in that sense he brings some versatility since there won’t be another left-footed CB besides Hector Moreno.
3) He’s a defense-first LB. Doesn’t hurt to have those kinds of players, for at the least, late game situations.
4) I want at the very least three true fullbacks. Because of Miguel Layun’s ability to play either side I don’t need four fullbacks. But I at least want three.
And my last change to my Osorio predictions is that I want Jose Juan Vazquez on the roster. JJ Vazquez has never once been called up by Juan Carlos Osorio despite being a key component of Miguel Herrera’s squads. Maybe I’m biased as a Chivas fan but I think it’s astounding that a player like Vazquez who was a major piece of Chivas’ Championship last season and who had three excellent starts at FIFA World Cup 2014 would be this far removed from the National Team. I think it may in large part be due to Vazquez’s lack of height, But if Osorio, who I know is a student of the game, looks he doesn’t have to try too hard to realize some of the greatest CDMs of all time were small.
I would add the following seven players as my reservists/injury replacements for now: