Mexico vs. New Zealand
Wednesday, November 13, 2013, 3:30 pm ET
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, Mexico
Watch on ESPN, Univision
Mexico get one more chance to rescue a miserable year over the next week, as they enter a two-legged intercontinental playoff against Oceania champions New Zealand with a trip to next summer's World Cup at stake.
El Tri's struggles in the CONCACAF Hexagonal round are by now quite familiar to most North American soccer watchers. They labored to a 2-3-5 record that just barely – thanks to the late heroics of US national teamers Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson – allowed them to pip Panama to this playoff berth, which looked like salvation when the Hex concluded last month, but now must be handled with focus and care.
That's because the All Whites (so named because of their uniforms, in contrast to the rugby team's legendary All Blacks) bring cohesion and World Cup experience – they were the only undefeated team at South Africa 2010, after all – to this affair. One of the pluckiest bands of underdogs in recent international soccer history, the Kiwis are everything the current incarnation of Mexico are not: gritty, committed – and proven at squeezing the utmost out of their limited reserves of talent.
On paper, this matchup clearly favors El Tri, but the same can be said of nearly every game they've played this year. Can new boss Miguel Herrera, their fourth coach since August, marshall his troops to the emphatic first-leg win they need?
Mexico hosted New Zealand in two of their many lucrative Stateside friendlies in recent years, comfortably defeating the All Whites 2-0 in Los Angeles on March 3, 2010, and 3-0 in Denver on June 1, 2011.
But the Kiwis can look further back and find encouragement from their first-ever meeting with El Tri. In a match that marked the international debut of current coach Ricki Herbert, the All Whites battered their overconfident guests 4-0 in a friendly in Auckland in August 1980, kick-starting the run that carried New Zealand through a marathon qualifying journey to their first World Cup, Spain '82.
Even the most confident El Tri fan – and there aren't nearly as many of those as there were a year or so ago – will admit that both the team and the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol have been their own worst enemy.
A litany of unimpressive performances at home have seen their vaunted qualifying dominance at their high-altitude Azteca stronghold (where they've averaged just 0.6 goals per game this year) vanish over the course of 2013. And after the federation finally dispensed with long-under-fire manager José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre after a stinging home loss to Honduras on Sept. 6, they have flitted from Víctor Manuel Vucetich to Luis Fernando Tena and now to current boss Herrera (at right), who has set tongues wagging with his decision to call in only domestic-based players for the intercontinental playoff.
The logic is that trans-Atlantic travel and hurried adaptation to Herrera's high-pressure 3-5-2 system would put European-based stars like Javier “Chicharito” Hernández (above right) behind the eight-ball, which also helps explain why 10 players from Herrera's Club América squad have earned call-ups. But it's a gamble nonetheless, and one that could have fans howling for the new coach's head should anything go wrong in this series.
NEW ZEALAND OUTLOOK
Herrera's personnel options may inspire jealousy in Herbert, the former Kiwi international who has led his country's national team since 2005. New Zealand's domestic league is semi-professional, traditionally forcing top players to go abroad in search of a high-level career.
But in a unique arrangement with Australia, the Wellington Phoenix compete in the A-League, their neighbor country's pro competition, which has provided invaluable opportunities for several members of the All Whites, including former Toronto FC loanee Jeremy Brockie (at right), who could play an important role up top in Mexico City on Wednesday.
Herbert has made no secret of his intentions to pack numbers behind the ball in search of a draw or narrow defeat in the first leg, and hunt for a decisive win on home turf in Wellington in a week's time. It's a strategy that worked in their 2010 World Cup playoff against Bahrain, but it has been complicated by the loss of influential defender Winston Reid due to an ankle injury sustained during training at his club West Ham United earlier this month.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
MEXICO – Raúl Jiménez
He's already a legend on account of the scintillating bicycle-kick strike that steered Mexico past Panama in their penultimate Hex match last month, and now the América striker has been picked to start – Herrera boldly announced his XI ahead of time this week – against New Zealand. Paired with Oribe Peralta up front, Jiménez will need to show both aggression and composure when he gets on the business end of the scoring chances El Tri are sure to create on Wednesday.
NEW ZEALAND – Ivan Vicelich
The 37-year-old made his All Whites debut a whopping 18 years ago, and actually retired from international play in 2008, only to be coaxed back into the fold a year later. Now he's expected to drop from midfield into the center-back role vacated by Reid, a pressure-packed assignment given the constant barrage of pressure Mexico will likely throw at their visitors.
Goalkeepers (3): José de Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Moisés Muñoz (Club América)
Defenders (9): Rafa Márquez (León), Francisco "Maza" Rodríguez (Club América), Juan Carlos Valenzuela (Club América), Paul Aguilar (Club América), Miguel Layún (Club América), Edwin Hernández (León), Adrián Aldrete (Club América), Miguel Herrera (Pachuca), Hiram Mier (Monterrey)
Midfielders (8): Rodrigo Salinas (Morelia), Juan Carlos Medina (Club América), Antonio "Sinha" Naelson (Toluca), Carlos Peña (León), Luis Ángel Mendoza (Club América), Luis Montes (León), Jesús Molina (Club América), Alonso Escoboza (Santos Laguna)
Forwards (3): Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna), Raúl Jiménez (Club América), Aldo de Nigris (Guadalajara)
Goalkeepers (3): Glen Moss (Wellington Phoenix), Jacob Spoonley (Wellington Phoenix), Tamati Williams (Auckland City FC/New Zealand)
Defenders (7): Andrew Durante (Wellington Phoenix), Tony Lochhead (unattached), Storm Roux (Central Coast Mariners/Australia), Ben Sigmund (Wellington Phoenix), Tommy Smith (Ipswich Town/England), Bill Tuiloma (Olympique Marseille/France), Ivan Vicelich (Auckland City FC/New Zealand)
Midfielders (6): Leo Bertos (Wellington Phoenix), Aaron Clapham (Canterbury United/New Zealand), Jeremy Christie (unattached), Craig Henderson (Mjallby AIF/Sweden), Chris James (Kuopion Palloseura/Finland), Michael McGlinchey (Central Coast Mariners/Australia)
Forwards (6): Kosta Barbarouses (Melbourne Victory/Australia), Jeremy Brockie (Wellington Phoenix), Rory Fallon (St. Johnstone/Scotland), Marco Rojas (Vfb Stuttgart/Germany), Shane Smeltz (Perth Glory/Australia), Chris Wood (Leicester City/England)