Mexico, Osorio cap positive but tumultuous year with point in Panama
PANAMA CITY -- Mexico ended 2016 with a record-reading 15 games played, 11 victories, three draws and only one defeat.
The ugly 0-0 draw against Panama on Tuesday wasn't exactly the statement of intent with which El Tri would've hoped to finish the year, but it showed just how tricky the circumstances are for Mexico when it travels away in CONCACAF.
"For many, Mexico is obligated to always be the protagonist, to risk more," El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio said after the Panama match. "Today we faced a Panama that sat back in their half with 10 players. It is a respectable idea, but it is a risky one for us."
If there is any doubt about just how valuable the point was on a poor playing surface against a physical Panama, just look to the United States' collapse in Costa Rica. Four points from two Hexagonal World Cup-qualifying games on the road represent an excellent start for Mexico.
The overriding and absolute goal for Osorio's Mexico is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in a smoother and altogether more convincing way than the near-disaster of Brazil 2014, in which El Tri -- as if anyone needs reminding -- was rescued by a late comeback by the United States against Panama.
"We consider that in each of the five [international] dates, we can get four points," Osorio said after the draw. "If we do as we set out to, we will have a healthy qualifying. We think that it's been a good start. We leave satisfied and with a lot of optimism."
But it was a strange year for El Tri if you judge it as a whole. The results show one thing, but there will be no forgetting the monumental blip that will probably overshadow every other scoreline: the 7-0 collapse to Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario.
It was embarrassing -- a low point for Mexican football. Surely, it had Osorio on the brink of losing his job. Certainly, the pressure was on when Mexico traveled to Columbus on Friday to face the most difficult game in Russia 2018 qualifying.
Osorio and, most importantly, his players responded with that famous 2-1 victory over the United States. It was that game that changed the narrative of Osorio's reign. The 7-0 will never be forgotten, but neither will the "dos a uno" against the Stars and Stripes, even if coverage of the Mexican team tends to be negative domestically.
"[In the Mexican press,] there are a lot of people that believe in the paranormal, they see a lot of ghosts," Javier Hernandez said ahead of the Panama game, stressing that the 7-0 is very much a thing of the past.
But imagine if Mexico had lost in Columbus and then scraped that draw in Panama? The pressure would be immense. That win bought time for Osorio, and the draw in Panama provided evidence that he needs it. There is still lots of work to do for Mexico.
For example, if Osorio is going to continue to consistently rotate, the players who come in have to be up to a similar standard, and that isn't yet the case all over the pitch.
With a four-month break between now and March's World Cup qualifiers, Osorio will want to see his players getting regular playing time at their clubs and, ideally, see younger players such as Hirving Lozano, Rodolfo Pizarro and others follow Carlos Salcedo's path and establish themselves in Europe. Simply put, he needs the Mexican depth pool to be deeper.
The fact that Giovani dos Santos is back and that Carlos Vela looks like he wants to continue to participate in this national team are major boosts in terms of providing competition. Youth production in Mexico is being affected by the Liga MX's 10/8 rule, but there is quality, and players such as Lozano, Erick Gutierrez, Cesar Montes, Orbelin Pineda, Raul Lopez and others have the potential to make the step up in 2017.
There are other questions about if and when to replace Rafa Marquez, how Mexico can manage to get more competitive friendlies and the repercussions of the goalkeeper chant that threaten to keep El Tri from playing in the Estadio Azteca at some point. Overall, though, Osorio has shown himself to be a very capable manager in 2016, and the union between him and the players bodes well for the rest of World Cup qualifying and beyond.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.