By IVES GALARCEP
You might think that losing in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup isn’t all that big a deal for a Mexican National Team that is coming off having played in the Confederations Cup, and fielded a weak team that was a stretch to even call a proper Mexican B team. That isn’t an unfair observation to make if not for the fact that the rest of the 2013 calendar year has been one long string of disappointing results for ‘El Tri’ and under-fire manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” De La Torre.
Losing in the semifinals of the Gold Cup, and to a Panama side that also beat Mexico in the group stage, is the latest brutal blow to the psyche of a team that has struggled badly this year, and has looked a shell of the team that won the 2011 Gold Cup and 2012 Olympics so convincingly.
Just how bad have the Mexicans been? They are 4-4-8 in 2013, with their wins coming against Jamaica, Japan, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago. Defensively, their numbers aren’t terrible, having allowed just 14 goals in 16 matches. It is offensively where ‘El Tri’ just doesn’t show the quality expected. The Mexicans have managed just 14 goals in those same 16 matches.
So no, the angst and anger coming from Mexican fans about the state of their national team isn’t strictly about losing to Panama, or missing out on a chance to three-peat as Gold Cup champions. It is the product of the latest disappointment being piled onto a mountain of unmet expectations and fears that things may only get worse.
Take Mexico’s World Cup qualifying campaign. When the year began, Mexico was penciled in as a favorite to top the group. It hasn’t worked out that way though, and ‘El Tri’ sit in third place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, just one point ahead of Honduras, the next team they face in the Hex. That makes the Sept. 6th meeting with the Catrachos all that much more important. Especially with a visit to Columbus to face the red-hot U.S. Men’s National Team awaiting just four days later.
A loss or tie vs. Honduras could leave Mexico in serious jeopardy of falling out of the top three automatic qualifying places, with a visit to Costa Rica and home match against Panama looming in October. That final stretch of matches is a daunting one, which is making the qualifier vs. Honduras essentially a must-win situation.
Before you go writing off this Mexican team, it should be remembered that ‘El Tri’ has faced tough stretches before, and been able to fight through them. In 2001, Mexico looked like a team doomed to miss the World Cup after winning just one of their first five HEX matches. All ‘El Tri’ did then was finish 4-0-1 in their last five HEX matches to lock up their place in that World Cup.
The 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle saw another similar turnaround. A 1-3 start in the HEX led to Sven-Goren Eriksson to be fired and Javier Aguirre brought in to save the day, much as he did in 2001. The Mexicans responded yet again, rattling off five straight wins to cruise to a place in the 2010 World Cup.
Mexico’s current struggles have felt a bit more discouraging though. Not only because this generation was supposed to be ‘El Tri’s’ Golden Generation, but because the recent surge of success by the USMNT has made Mexico look even worse. While De La Torre’s team has struggled to post good results, and even score goals, Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. team is riding high, heading into Sunday’s Gold Cup final on a team-record 10-match winning streak.
It has been a strong year for the Americans, who are 11-2-2 in 2013, leading the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group, and have scored a whopping 36 goals in those 15 matches. Klinsmann has not only succeeded in getting results, and cultivating depth, but also integrating a real attacking style of soccer that has U.S. fans excited for the future.
That is in stark contrast to what Mexican fans are currently feeling about De La Torre, and there is some sweet irony in the fact that a U.S. team coach’s success is only adding to the pressure on De La Torre.
It was just two years ago that De La Torre was the coach riding high, and winning, and leading a team that was playing attractive attacking soccer while his U.S. counterpart at the time, Bob Bradley, was facing pressure due to what was perceived as a disappointing run by the Americans, and what many believed was a growing gap between the U.S. and ‘El Tri’.
Back then, De La Torre could do no wrong, and was propped up as some master coach who had finally helped ‘El Tri’ realize its vast potential, while also helping put the U.S. team in its place. Mexico’s Gold Cup Final triumph over the United States in 2011 helped seal Bradley’s fate as U.S. coach, and paved the way for Klinsmann to take over the American team.
Since then, the U.S. is unbeaten in three meetings with De La Torre’s Mexico, and is looking like a good bet to add another win to that total when the two rivals meet on Sept. 10th.
By then, the pressure on De La Torre could reach an excruciating level, especially if ‘El Tri’ fails beat Honduras at Estadio Azteca, the once-vaunted fortress where Mexico has failed to win, or even score a goal, through three home HEX matches.
De La Torre could wind up facing the United States on Sept. 10th with his job on the line. Assuming he even lasts that long.