Juan Carlos Osorio Q&A: Opening up on life with Mexico, the U.S., rotations
Speak to Mexico head coach Juan Carlos Osorio about football matters, rather than the chisme ("gossip") that often dominates the sports pages in Mexico, and his eyes light up. Osorio slams his hands down on the table when making a point about tactical periodization, and a smile comes across his face when the seminal work "Science and Football" is mentioned. The esteem in which he holds the likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Sir Alex Ferguson is more than clear. Osorio, he himself would probably admit, is a football obsessive.
Inside the plush confines of the Mexican Football Federation's Centro de Alto Rendimiento (literally "high performance center") to the south of Mexico City, Osorio currently works at a facility that most teams simply can't afford. The pristine pitches, high-level accommodation and layout of the place all offer tranquility and an idyllic setting. But outside the bubble of the gated, high-walled CAR, half-built houses, unfinished roads and signs of Mexico's less fortunate on the way back to the Mexico City metropolis act as a metaphor for the duality of Mexican football itself; there is opulence and ambition, but also much work to be done to match the potential that has lured managers in only to spit them right back out.
Osorio is charged with drawing those disparate elements together, shaking them up and forging a clearer path for Mexico. In other words, he has to take the concepts of the game that he's learned over stints around the world and turn them into actual results on the field with the Mexico national team.
So far, results have been mixed. Mexico achieved nine wins from its first nine games with Osorio at the helm, conceding just once. But the negatives were all too evident in El Tri's 7-0 loss to Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario this past summer. The pressure on Osorio's job -- which is notoriously unstable -- has increased.
So, with Mexico's huge World Cup qualifier against the United States coming up Friday, ESPN FC took a trip to the CAR and into Osorio's mind to see exactly where he and the Mexico national team are at ahead of their most important game in 2017.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN FC: Profe, you said recently that you have great belief in Mexico's future. Could you expand on why that is based on what you've seen since taking the job in October 2015?
JUAN CARLOS OSORIO: First of all, right now we have 14 players in Europe and it seems that nowadays the players are getting more playing time. Now, Marco Fabian is an influential player in his team (Eintracht Frankfurt), as well as Diego Reyes (Espanyol) playing in a different position (defensive midfield). And also Carlos Salcedo, who is playing as a full-back at Fiorentina. That means we have three more players that are competing for places in the national team. There is also the possibility in the near future that a couple more players will go to Europe. That will only strengthen the team.
We are also using the friendly matches to give opportunities to young Mexican players that are playing in [Liga MX]. Hopefully through that opportunity there will be one or two or three that A: go to play in Europe, and B: will force themselves into the national team.
ESPN FC: There seems to be a core of strong Mexican youngsters pushing for more minutes with the national team -- Hirving Lozano, Cesar Montes, Carlos Salcedo, Rodolfo Pizarro and Orbelin Pineda. How far away do you think we are from a generational shift in El Tri?
OSORIO: I think it will be gradual, but there are indeed a few of those players that you mentioned that have the potential and that have the credentials to compete for a place in the national team. As I stated before, we'll continue to use the friendly games to give opportunities to those young players that need to be seen and need to play in the national team and show us that they can compete with the senior players or those players playing in Europe.
ESPN FC: How key has the United States been in your personal history and development as a manager, from going there to study to becoming an MLS coach?
OSORIO: I think MLS is a very reputable league, a very strong league. I think that the football Americans have has progressed a big deal. As a country, I personally believe that it is the top country in the world in terms of offering chances for people like me to go and study on a full scholarship, get a degree, work and achieve a lot of personal goals.
In my case, I will always be very thankful to the United States for the chance it gave me. Both my kids were born in Queens, New York, and we lived there for more than 20 years. To me, the United States is a top, top country.
ESPN FC: What did you learn about the game from your time in the U.S.?
OSORIO: The one thing I learned in the United States and in England was to compete within the rules. Being South American and playing football in my country, we were so used to diving inside the box and fake injuries and trash talk, whereas in America I learned to compete head to head respecting the opposition and giving 100 percent. It's a great opportunity to go back there and compete where I learned all these values. It only motivates me to try my best and try to win the game.
ESPN FC: And your links with current U.S. internationals?
OSORIO: Maybe some don't remember or don't know, but I was with the MetroStars (coaching staff) when we gave Tim Howard his debut (1998). I also coached Jozy Altidore with the [New York] Red Bulls. And when I was with the Red Bulls I wanted [Geoff] Cameron. I requested him from Houston many times.
I had Michael Bradley in Manchester in my house, I believe for one week when he was trying out for [Manchester City]. So there are a few players that I have spent time with and I respect them all [for] the progress and achievements that they have had. But it'll be a great opportunity to compete with them.
[Editor's note: ESPN FC's Doug McIntyre confirmed with a source close to U.S. captain Bradley that he did stay at Osorio's house while training with Manchester City.]
ESPN FC: What are your thoughts on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's achievements over the course of his career, both with Germany and the Stars and Stripes?
OSORIO: I think he's a top manager, without a doubt. It will be very difficult (in Columbus). He'll have his players fired up for the game. We will be on the same page. I think that he's a football man and he'll probably know a lot of things about us too.
ESPN FC: After the Copa America Centenario and the 7-0 loss to Chile, you headed to South America to seek guidance from a range of figures -- including people who have suffered tragedies outside of football. But it was the five days you spent with Marcelo Bielsa at his house that made headlines in Mexico. You've stated that the conversations with Bielsa over long walks will remain private, but if you were to summarize your main take from what was said and concluded, what would it be?
OSORIO: I will take time to elaborate on this matter because it is very, very important. I will start by saying that frequently, people refer to many Mexican players as players with ability, but mental limits. We are obviously not psychologists, [but] speaking with Marcelo, we came to the conclusion that limits can be overcome with training on the pitch, recreating real game situations, going through real game situations and through trial and error and learning how to deal with those situations. That can be done in two different ways. A: as I mentioned the training, and B: the competition itself.
In South America, you compete against the best. Even if you are not the strongest national team you compete against Brazil, against Argentina. In CONCACAF it is different. We compete against teams that are supposedly underneath and not with teams that are above us. It's only when we go to those tournaments like the Copa America or World Cup or Confederations Cup that we get the chance to compete with those teams. But we showed in the recent Copa America in the recent games against Paraguay and Chile friendlies, Uruguay and even Venezuela [that we can compete].
I think the most important thing that I corroborated with Bielsa was that the fact that good training, good day-to-day help the players to surpass the limits they can have mentally.
ESPN FC: Former El Tri coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said that the expectation in Mexico surprised him, and you recently stated that it is similar to that of Brazil -- only Mexico hasn't won five World Cups. How do you deal with that on a personal level?
OSORIO: I respect it ... We can aspire to great things, for us to go to the top level, and I think Mexican fans do as well. It is a process ... I believe more in what we can achieve objectively speaking and try to concentrate on that. With the process, one day we can achieve great things.
How I deal with that? There two or three things that I do. A: I don't read or watch or follow any programs with personal views or controversies. I watch a lot of games. My favorite pastime is to watch international football. I can sit down at the weekend and watch four or five games in one day and enjoy myself and cook in between and stay home and watch and learn and see what the managers try to do in every game and write sessions and tactical structures and all that. That's one thing that I do. To conclude, I try to be very selective as to what information I get.
B: I run two or three times a week, so I keep in decent shape. I eat well and I try to read a lot. I study the game a lot as well. I write all of my sessions. I wrote a book and I'm trying to write another one, so that keeps me busy and occupied.
ESPN FC: Your rotation policy has been heavily criticized, even if it has been explained on numerous occasions and is laid out in your book. How much of your ideas come from being around North West England at a time when Gerard Houllier was implementing similar tactics at Liverpool and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, plus the development of sports science theories such as those contained in "Science and Football?"
OSORIO: That's it! I'm proud to say I learned from the best. When I first went to Manchester, I went to United and asked Mr. Ferguson to let me into the training and he allowed me because -- I have to remind everybody -- when I first went to Manchester City in 2001 the team was playing in the Championship and therefore Ferguson didn't see me as a threat and allowed me to go and watch them train. And I patiently waited many days just to have five minutes of Mr. Ferguson's wise advice.
I heard from him his words: "The way to keep a good competition among the players is to give them the opportunity to compete and play. It's not enough to tell a player he is good enough for the first team. At some point he has to play and you as a manager have to give them the opportunity."
Rotation, unfortunately, is a badly taken word in Spanish-speaking countries, whereas in English-speaking countries rotation means opportunity -- confidence in somebody's ability. That's what I do it for and I'll continue to do it.
ESPN FC: The pressure on your job has increased and the press in Mexico has been on your back since that 7-0. You recently said that you have full confidence that the players are behind you and your ideas. Have there been any examples of them coming to you -- like Andres Iniesta knocking on Pep Guardiola's door after his shaky start with Barcelona -- and telling you to stick to your philosophy?
OSORIO: Yes. There are a few players here who have been very generous with us. There are a few players that have contacted me and let me know that they as a group believe in what we are doing, they as a group understand our idea of the game and they as a group want us to be here and trying to take that step forward with the Mexican players.
ESPN FC: How have you adapted from being a club manager to working with a national team, considering initial concerns about not having a chance to see players on the training pitch on a daily basis?
OSORIO: I think that's an important question. Technology allows any human being who wants to learn and progress in anything and gives a great opportunity to do so. YouTube provides, for instance, all the training that other coaches do ... The analysis of the games we do through a very reputable system. And we take out specific tasks in each position and I compare [Mexican players] with the best in the world and try to give our players a prescription as to what they do well and what they have to improve on. After that we follow it with practices on the pitch where I strongly believe we do a good job in replicating real game situations.
ESPN FC: It seems like you've tried to bring a more physical presence to this Mexico team, especially in defensive midfield. Is that correct?
OSORIO: Yes. I think against [the United States] it's important to have at least six good headers of the ball and obviously that central midfielder is a pivotal position for us because it's not only a player that can distribute the ball and make the game smooth, but he's also a player that has to compete for the long ball when they look for the striker.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.