Omar Govea, midfielders get chance to impress in Mexico friendlies
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio named his 28-player squad Wednesday for upcoming friendlies against Iceland on March 23 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and four days later against Croatia at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
There were surprise inclusions, the notable omission of Giovani dos Santos because of injury and welcome returns for goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera and forward Marco Fabian after sustained periods out of the squad due to long-term injuries.
Here's a rundown of the main themes in this key announcement with a view to understanding what Osorio is thinking about his squad for Russia 2018 in El Tri's first full meet-up since November.
The surprise inclusions
There weren't any names on the list that came from absolutely nowhere as every player in the squad has already earned caps for the full national team. But midfielders Omar Govea (Royal Excel), Jonathan Gonzalez (Monterrey), Jesus Molina (Monterrey), Jorge Hernandez (Pachuca), Jurgen Damm (Tigres) and Rodolfo Pizarro (Chivas) were not guaranteed to be on this list and yet each of them has a final opportunity to impress.
Belgium-based Govea's rise of late has been particularly notable. The 22-year-old has been getting regular playing time at his club and appears to now have a genuine chance of making the World Cup roster.
The call-up for dual-national midfielder Gonzalez, whose Monterrey team has struggled of late, helps prove that his switch from the United States wasn't simply due to Mexico wanting to tie him down. The 18-year-old could well be the future of El Tri's midfield and this upcoming camp, his first with Mexico's European legion, will be key to Osorio ascertaining just how ready Gonzalez is to take on more responsibility at the international level.
Govea and Gonzalez look set to battle it out for a potential spot at the World Cup with Pachuca's Hernandez and Monterrey's Molina, who has played mainly as a center back this season. Damm remains an Osorio favorite due to his blistering pace.
Overall, however, this is a stable squad and one that fits in line with how Osorio has refined a core group since he took over. The 14 foreign-based player (excluding Govea) are fairly certain of their places for Russia, as are Liga MX goalkeepers Talavera and Jesus Corona, Santos Laguna defender Nestor Araujo and Pumas' Jesus Gallardo.
It's the final five places in the eventual 23-player squad that are in doubt.
The alarm bells should really be starting to sound for those players not on this list and who aren't injured.
Pachuca midfielder Erick Gutierrez, Chivas midfielder Orbelin Pineda, Monterrey center back Cesar Montes, Leon winger Elias Hernandez, Tigres' Jesus Duenas, Santos Laguna's Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez, Club America's Paul Aguilar and Chivas' Oswaldo Alanis will all be feeling as if their World Cup dream is very distant right now.
Giovani dealt injury blow
Not much is going right for Giovani dos Santos of late when it comes the Mexican national team. In January, Osorio made a point of pouring praise upon the forward, indicating that Dos Santos had matured and hinting that the 28-year-old had an important role to play with El Tri this summer.
But after a poor 2017 for both the LA Galaxy and Mexico, the news that Dos Santos is out for between one and three weeks because of a hamstring injury is a real blow. He would have been desperate to play in these friendlies, particularly with a growing number of Mexico fans questioning his right to be in the squad for the World Cup.
Dos Santos missing out represents a chance for someone like Pizarro to really stake a claim for a World Cup spot.
Marquez's wait on status continues
One of the narratives leading into Russia 2018 for the Mexican national team was set to be Rafa Marquez featuring at his fifth World Cup and becoming the only player in history to captain his side in five tournaments. But Marquez, who was one of 22 people sanctioned last August by the U.S. Treasury as a result of a multiyear investigation into a drug-trafficking organization, is in limbo and his legal status is unclear.
However, not seeing the 39-year-old's name in this squad poses the question of whether he will ever return, with time quickly running out.
Talavera and Fabian return
Toluca goalkeeper Talavera is back in a Mexico squad for the first time since the Confederations Cup, following a knee injury that kept him out from last July until earlier this year.
Toluca coach Hernan Cristante recently suggested that Talavera would be his No. 1 with Mexico, and while Guillermo Ochoa looks to have earned that spot under Osorio, the competition can do no harm at all, and Osorio clearly likes Talavera's ability in the air.
Fabian is coming into this squad with a similar situation. The versatile Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder/forward has played only 67 minutes in the Bundesliga this season after a complicated back injury, but his return adds depth to the attacking midfield and wing positions, additionally intensifying the competition for those final five places.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.