Mexico hopes Confederations Cup can be their international breakthrough
KAZAN, Russia -- The Mexican national team is in a good place ahead of the Confederations Cup and the tournament will offer an opportunity to show just how much progress El Tri has made under coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
But replace the word "Confederations Cup" with "Copa America Centenario" and that sentence could've been written ahead of the summer of 2016. In that tournament in the United States, a bright start and positive predictions for Mexico nose-dived spectacularly to become perhaps the country's darkest footballing moment, as El Tri lost 7-0 in the quarterfinal against Chile.
Therein lies the conundrum for Mexico in Russia over the next couple of weeks. There is confidence, a sense of humility and Spanish mental coach Imanol Ibarrondo has been working alongside Osorio to sharpen the squad's resolve and unity. All the evidence suggests progress has been made.
The 2-1 victory last November against the United States in Columbus, Ohio, in World Cup qualifying was a breakthrough. Osorio was given an injection of authority and the team has remained assured since then. It has put itself in a strong position in CONCACAF's Hexagonal table.
But the Confederations Cup provides a very different test to that of the CONCACAF dogfight that Osorio and his players have skillfully kept their heads above this cycle. You don't need to look any further ahead than El Tri's Group A opener on Sunday against European champion Portugal to see that. The last time Mexico faced such a strong outfit was June 18, 2016 -- the infamous Chile match.
There is a feeling that the moment of truth has arrived for this group of players, who have suffered so much playing for the national team. It wasn't just last summer that El Tri hit rock bottom, but the bulk of this generation of Mexican players also went through the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
If there is a time for this group of players to step up and make an impact in the green shirt of Mexico, it'll have to be in Russia, both at the Confederations Cup and next year at the World Cup.
The average age of the squad Osorio has assembled in Russia is 27.9 years. Of the 23 players currently in Kazan, 15 are between the ages of 25 and 30, with four under 25 and four over 30. In terms of experience in Europe, a grand total of 15 have played in the Old Continent and 15 members of the squad have 20 or more caps. Only Rodolfo Cota, Luis Reyes and Jurgen Damm have fewer than 10 appearances for the national team.
In other words, the squad is almost ideally balanced in terms of age and experience.
The one major blow to Osorio is Jesus "Tecatito" Corona missing the tournament due to a personal issue.
"As a player we know the quality he has and what he offers," goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said on Wednesday. "Now we have to take on the cup with the players we have and there is quality and talent."
One fascinating aspect of this tournament is how Osorio manages that talent. Andres Guardado, Miguel Layun, Nestor Araujo and Rafa Marquez are all available, according to the manager, after missing out on last Sunday's match against the United States due to injury.
The Colombian is known for his rotations and adapting his player selection and formation according to the opposition. For example, it would be no surprise if Osorio changes goalkeepers from one game to the next. The formations used are likely to alternate between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, with the emphasis on creating numeric superiority down the wings as much as possible.
This Mexico team has a faster transition under Osorio and a feature of El Tri's play is longer, more direct balls to the wings to complement the national team's staple possession-based game.
Osorio thinks long and hard about how opponents can cause danger. So, for example, it would not be surprise if Mexico starts with at least five players against New Zealand that are decent in the air to combat what is likely to be a direct approach from the All Whites.
Sunday's match against Portugal will be Osorio's first official game managing in Europe and the manager, who has worked himself up the world game despite not being a big-name player, could become one of the stars of this tournament. The Colombian may be well known in the Americas, but he's still yet to make a mark in Europe and it's clear that everything he has worked towards is to mix it at the very top of the world game.
Of Mexico's younger and less known generation, Hirving Lozano has been heralded and appears to be on the brink of a move to Europe but needs to make a significant impact on the international stage. So far, there have been glimpses with El Tri, but his reputation has mainly been earned on what he has achieved at Pachuca.
Mexico won this tournament in 1999 -- only France and Brazil have lifted the cup aside from El Tri -- and goes into the Confederations Cup with the fourth-best odds of the eight teams to win it, behind Germany, Portugal and Chile. If Mexico can get through Group A -- and the test against host Russia in the final group game will be intriguing -- El Tri can make an impact this month.
El Tri's goal is to reach the final, and that would be a major achievement. It is also realistic if the side can prove the mental scars of last summer are well and truly healed.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.