Here are some things we can say with certainty. Mexico and Portugal tied their Confederations Cup opener 2-2 on Sunday; El Tri needed an injury-time goal to pull the point out of the fire; and Portugal had several late chances that should have put the game away before Hector Moreno played the hero.
Now here’s a thing we can assert with a fair degree of confidence: Mexico was the better team. Juan Carlos Osorio’s men controlled the game while the European champions sat back and looked to counter. Also, Mexico failed to convert all that possession into sufficient chances, just as in its 1-1 tie with the United States in a World Cup Qualifier at the Estadio Azteca on June 11.
The game felt like Mexico’s history of the last few decades writ small: good, yet somehow not quite good enough — a performance that didn’t translate into a result.
If you’ve been paying attention to CONCACAF since the 2014 World Cup, that won’t have surprised you. Whereas the United States men’s national team has alternated between middling form and careening into various crises, the Mexicans have grown ever stronger. They won the 2015 Gold Cup in convincing fashion and bolster a depth that is simply unprecedented in this region.
The only hiccups have come at the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas, when they went winless in the former and were hammered 7-0 by Chile in the quarterfinals in the latter. But other than that, Osorio’s team, made up in part from the young generation that won the 2012 Olympics, has steadily improved. And risen to the point where there’s simply no debate to be had over who the strongest team in the confederation is.
Sorry, U.S. fans. It’s the truth.
But for more than two decades now, El Tri has been stuck somewhere between CONCACAF juggernaut and major national team in the global game. The Mexicans have reached the round of 16 in every World Cup since 1994, yet have never gotten to what’s known south of the border as the elusive “fifth game.” This run is nevertheless an accomplishment, since the program had never delivered a knockout stage participant other than in the two tournaments held on home soil, in 1970 and 1986 — when the quarterfinals were the final stop.
Since ’94, Mexico has won the Confederations Cup and lifted the Gold Cup six times. It even medaled at the Copa America four times. And then, of course, there was the gold at the Games in London.
Yet for all that success, Mexico has yet ascend to the truly rarefied atmosphere of international soccer.
There’s a real opportunity to make a mark now, but it may be brief.
Following the chaotic qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, wherein the Mexicans squeezed into a berth through the eye of the needle, things are much simpler this time around. Osorio has brought stability. And while his lineups and substitutions sometimes confound the legion Mexico critics, he plays a pretty and recognizable style and is abundantly popular with his players.
With a spot in Russia in 2018 practically in the bag with four qualifiers left to play, Mexico has turned its attention elsewhere. Namely, to showing well at the ongoing Confederations Cup and then winning a fourth Gold Cup in five editions by splitting up its enviable talent pool into two separate teams.
Osorio is often criticized for rotating his players. He shrugs at this. What is he to do when he has so many worthy contenders at each position, wants to keep them all sharp and involved, and can only give out so many minutes?
The amount of international-caliber players now at his disposal is staggering. While the goalkeeper corps is pedestrian — Guillermo Ochoa never did grow into the elite netminder we all thought he would — there are two or three legitimate, international-level options in every other position.
But what really catches the eye is how many key players are in their primes, while the younger talent has become productive. This suggests that a window has opened up to finally break through. Yet it could also be brief.
Setting aside the ageless Rafa Marquez, who chugs on at 38, the rest of El Tri’s core is probably at the height of its powers. Ochoa is 31. Defenders Miguel Layun and Hector Moreno — newly of AS Roma — are 28 and 29. Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo are 24 and 23. In midfield, Hector Herrera is 27 and captain Andres Guardado 30. Jonathan and Gio Dos Santos are 27 and 28. Javier Aquino is 27 as well.
Up front, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is 29 and Carlos Vela 28. Raul Jimenez 26 and Oribe Peralta, at 33, remains useful. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, meanwhile, is just 21 — three years younger than Jesus Manuel “Tecatito” Corona, who is away from the team for personal reasons.
This immense assembly of talent likely won’t get much better than it promises to be over the next two summers. That’s just the nature of primes in soccer. And just as the cycle of American generations might well wind up being all wrong at next summer’s World Cup, catching the Yanks between two fairly distinct groups, Mexico’s could be lining up exactly right.
To do something in the Confederations Cup. And to win another Gold Cup with its fairly strong B-team. And, most of all, to finally reach that fifth game next summer. Because at the next World Cup, in Qatar in 2022, this team will surely be past it.
But first, El Tri will need to work out how to actually beat teams it’s superior to on a consistent basis.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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