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  • Mexico sucked this year, but the 'Gigantes of Concacaf' should fulfill their frustrating destiny in 2014


    Author’s note: If you’re wondering what an article about Mexico is doing on CSN I invite you to read the explanation at the bottom of this article.

    Who knows what was running through former Club América coach Miguel Herrera’s mind earlier this month when he approached reporters’ microphones after his side’s aggregate 5-1 loss to Leon in the Liga MX championship and blamed the disaster on bad refereeing before storming off into the night.

    Herrera, who has since been named the permanent manager of the Mexican national team, subsequently apologized for his quasi-diatribe and attributed his remarks to the disappointment of defeat. But this tantrum thrown by a grown man does seem a fitting end to the year for the national side -- a year marked by rash decisions and deadening humiliation, a year that saw the wealthy businessmen who run both the professional league and the national team burn through three managers, a year that saw naturalized Argentinians capped in a desperate bid for scoring punch, and worst of all, a year that saw Mexico qualify for the World Cup in the saddest way possible, only thanks to last-ditch help from its despised rivals to the north.

    The good news is that all that will soon be last year's news. The bad news - okay, perhaps not so much bad as unsettling - is that for Herrera reassembling the pieces involves more questions, so many nagging questions, questions like the ones that caused him to lash out at journalists. Here are but a few of them, and the answers will determine whether Mexico does something memorable at the World Cup.


    It wasn't supposed to be like this for Herrera. After leading Mexico to a demolition of New Zealand in the last-gasp qualification attempt and then navigating two rounds of playoffs with America, he was generally expected to depart the club with a championship. The result, and his wild behaviour afterwards, caused some pundits to call for his removal as national team manager, and others to wonder whether he was good enough in the first place.

    So will the fans, pundits and national team oversee-ers leave Herrera alone?

    Unfortunately for Herrera, probably not. The questions over his ability are unlikely to fade away because naming a national team manager so closely associated with one of the country's most popular -- and as is usually the case, hated -- clubs, was always going to cause sideways glances. Add to this the confusing intersection of professional soccer and the national team in Mexico: America is owned by Grupo Televisa, the country’s biggest broadcaster, whose owner sits on a committee that runs the national team. Because Televisa owns the the lucrative World Cup broadcast rights, it is heavily invested in having the national team qualify. And hey, if the national team makes stars out of Club America players in the process, even better. This makes for plenty of easy targets for already pissed off fans when it comes to player selection.

    The side Herrera sent out against New Zealand featured ten of its 23 players from America, including seven of the starting XI in the first leg at Azteca Stadium. The rest of the side consisted entirely of players based in the Mexican top flight. A 9-3 aggregate scoreline seems to indicate the plan worked, but the competition this summer in Brazil will present another challenge entirely. The good news on this front is that there is unlikely to be much appetite to change managerial course yet again before the World Cup.

    Hmm, what if Mexico just sent a slightly modified Club America as its national team? That might work.

    The "Club America as Mexico" project would not be without precedence. Other World Cup teams have been constructed around a base from a glamourous domestic club. The 1974 and 2010 World Cup winners, West Germany and Spain, for example. The Germans counted seven Bayern players to fill out the national team, with six of them starting the final against the Netherlands. Spain featured six Barcelona players in the final (also against the Netherlands.) If you spend much time following soccer, you know the ‘Spain is just Barcelona without Messi’ trope is well-worn. But there is an important difference: those sides shared players with the great clubs of their era, but not the same coach. Herrera's association with America players could lead to resentment from others who feel deserving of more playing.

    Ah yes, the others. What about all those Mexicans playing in Europe? They must be kinda good and likely helpful right?

    That's really the all-encompassing question when it comes to Mexico in 2014. Will Herrera have the constitution to ignore European-based players such as Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez or the self-exiled Carlos Vela. Many Mexican supporters would probably hope that he doesn't. He's already planning a trip overseas to see which players will commit to being part of the preparations over the coming months.

    Canadian soccer fans (or at least those remaining few who don't take pleasure in the misery of others) might sympathize with their Mexican counterparts when it comes to Vela, given their own sad experience with Junior Hoilett. See, Vela has never really explained why he won't show up for Mexico anymore. There's plenty of speculation about feuds with directors and former managers, but nothing really on public record. The 24-year-old striker has excelled in a variety of forward positions over the past season and a half for Real Sociedad, scoring 22 La Liga goals in 51 appearances. The boy would clearly add a dimension to Mexico, so long as Herrera can a) actually convince him to play, and B) do so in a way that doesn't upset the players who feel he's simply showing up for the World Cup while skipping the qualifying slog.

    Europeans complicate the scene in goal as well. There are the three domestic choices Herrera brought against New Zealand: Jose de Jesus Corona, Alfredo Talavera and of course, Club America's own Moisés Muñoz. The experienced hand lies with Guillermo Ochoa, however, who has 55 caps with the national team. He currently plays for (relegation threatened) Athletic Club Ajaccio in the French first division and philosophical arguments aside, is probably playing at the highest level of any Mexican goalkeeper right now.

    I've read Herrera favours a 5-3-2 formation for both club and country (or a 3-5-2 one, depending on who is counting), will that work at the World Cup?

    This is where we return to the "tried and true" thing. Herrera enjoys two wide players - Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar - and three central defenders to make the system work. Against New Zealand four of that band of five came from America. It's supposedly unorthodox compared to current fashions in Europe and South America, but it's a system the America players know. Of course, Mexico's European players must buy into it. Herrera's biggest challenge up front will be figuring out how many of the six or so offensively minded forwards - Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Oribe Peralta, Raul Jimenez and maybe Aldo de Nigris he can squeeze on the pitch at once.

    It's a long way out, but how will Mexico finish the World Cup?

    Like most other teams at the World Cup, Mexico will finish the tournament in a way that upsets its supporters. At least Herrera can be thankful for a slightly more benevolent draw than the nightmares handed to Concacaf brethren such as the U.S. and Costa Rica. And that’s saying a lot for a group that includes Brazil as the host country. If someone had told Mexico (and we're speaking here of the collective Mexico -- players, fans, directors -- and assigning them a singular voice) back in November that advancing from its group would only require finishing atop a three-way with Cameroon and Croatia, it would have happily sprung for that option.

    Herrera will convene many so-called microcycles -- small mid-week camps during the league season that featuring mainly domestic players -- to overcome the lack of official space for FIFA friendlies. Generally, pro clubs in Mexico are onboard with such activities and they offer an important advantage. Assuming Herrera pinpoints the right blend of European players, the talent is overwhelmingly in place to lead to a final-16 appearance. Of course, at that point they'll likely face Spain, and no amount of Carlos Vela is going to help them. So there it lies yet again for Mexico. The near mystical "fifth game" supporters obsess over is an ask too far, but Mexico must only play to its potential to be the last team from the region standing. And while we're on the subject of uncomfortable questions, how long will it be before we can expect more from the Gigantes of Concacaf?

    Author's note

    Do readers of this site give a shit about soccer south of the Rio Grande? I’ve asked myself that question over the years and kept returning to the conclusion that they don’t. Despite that, on a few occasions I have started – and then almost immediately stopped – trying to write some sort of regular feature that keeps CSN readers informed and maybe even engaged in the soccer of Central America and Mexico.

    My thinking was simple: while the internet is saturated with coverage of the U.S. mens’ national team, there seems a dearth of English-language coverage around Canada’s other main rivals, namely the Central American middle powers of the region. I’m under no illusion about a massive unfulfilled appetite for what’s happening daily in, say, the Honduran league, but after bumbling through various media from the region over a period of years there are definitely things afoot – the broadly based match-fixing scandal in El Salvador for example – that should interest an attuned Canadian soccer supporter.

    These are the countries Canada needs to go through to achieve what is really the ultimate goal, the whole damn reason many of us subject ourselves to this: watching our country play in the World Cup. And for the past two decades Canada has been laughingly unsuccessful in going through them. The players and coaches need to know these rivals; for the rest of us, having a better understanding might make it more interesting. If you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Sun Tzu: “If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

    We are six months away from the World Cup, a tournament to which Latin America will send eight teams, three of which represent Concacaf. This is where I hope to tell you more about them than you can know anywhere else.

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