Mexico enjoyed drama-free 2017, but there is room to grow for World Cup
A solid effort, but room for improvement.
If the Mexican national team had a school report for 2017, it would read something like the above. Overall, it was a fairly satisfactory 12 months for El Tri, but the year also made it abundantly clear where Mexico needs to improve and find solutions before the World Cup swings around next summer.
There were 15 wins, six draws (over 90 minutes) and four losses for Juan Carlos Osorio's side in 2017. El Tri finished the year in 16th place in the FIFA rankings, which seems a fair reflection of where Mexico is heading into 2018.
Mexico's relative ease in qualifying for Russia 2018 was put in perspective by the United States' failure to make the World Cup. Mexico had been the story for all the wrong reasons four years ago, and while El Tri just scraped over the qualifying line ahead of Brazil 2014, the No. 1 priority for the Mexican federation in the cycle ahead of 2018 was to leave that drama behind.
That was achieved in 2017 with a certain degree of swagger. Only October's final-day defeat to Honduras in San Pedro Sula ended Mexico's undefeated World Cup qualifying record. El Tri finished in first place, five points ahead of Costa Rica and with only seven goals conceded over 10 games.
Yet it won't have been lost on Osorio that 22-year-old winger Hirving Lozano was Mexico's top goal scorer in qualifying. The PSV Eindhoven star netted six goals in 2017 for El Tri -- two more than Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who became Mexico's all-time leading goal-scorer in March.
Lozano's rise in prominence, his move from Pachuca to PSV and the way he has responded to the challenge in Europe have been among Mexico's highlights of 2017. Lozano's brace against Belgium in November was the outstanding performance of the year from any national team player. If PSV can hold on to him until after the World Cup, the Dutch club might just be able to sell him for a record fee for a Mexican player.
Aside from Lozano, Mexico has remained largely consistent in terms of the starters. Sure, Osorio's rotation policy has been there for all to see when there are two games with little space in between, but for the most important matches, a clear starting XI is evident.
Guillermo Ochoa has consolidated himself as the No. 1 in goal this year, and the defense appears more settled with the partnership between Nestor Araujo and Hector Moreno at center-back.
Questions remain over whether Diego Reyes is the solution in the holding midfield role, but Osorio has persisted and will have his fingers crossed that the former Club America player gets regular minutes for Porto in 2018.
The 3-3 draw against Belgium and 1-0 victory over Poland in November to close the year boded well. But the Confederations Cup offered a reminder of what Mexico still lacks in order to succeed in Russia. El Tri wasn't as bad as was made out. There were good performances against Portugal and hosts Russia, but the New Zealand game was nerve-racking, and Germany swept Mexico aside with ease in the semifinal.
If El Tri is to clear that hurdle and reach a quarterfinal, it will more than likely need a positive result against a big nation. That has proved problematic throughout its history.
Still, Mexico is much better set heading into 2018 than it has been for the past two World Cups. There is stability, players know what Osorio wants from them, and there is a sense that this generation of players -- Hernandez, Ochoa, Hector Herrera, Andres Guardado, Hector Moreno -- can get it right at Russia 2018.
The World Cup draw brought mixed blessings. The travel involved in Group F is kind to El Tri, who should have genuine hopes of getting the better of Sweden and South Korea. But Germany is another beast entirely, and should Mexico face Brazil in the Round of 16, as is possible, then it's a difficult path to the minimum goal of reaching the quarterfinal.
Perhaps Mexico's lowest ebb of the year was the competition of least importance: the Gold Cup. Nothing highlighted the pressure of being El Tri's manager than the wave of criticism following the semifinal exit to Jamaica, with Osorio insulted and booed.
The real negative, however, was the failure of the next generation to firmly stand up and declare itself ready to compete with established starters. Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro and Erick Gutierrez didn't do themselves many favors. The only outstanding young player was Edson Alvarez, who has a genuine shot at starting in the World Cup.
Overall, just how successful 2017 was for Mexico will depend on whether the team takes the lessons learned and puts them into practice in 2018.
Most goals: Lozano (6)
Most games played: Jesus Gallardo (16)
Most shots: Hernandez (30)
Most touches: Herrera (1,277)
Most assists: Herrera (5)
Goals scored: 40
Goals conceded: 25
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.