So begins Mexico’s most challenging – and most frigid – World Cup qualifying window.
Following a promising start to the Octagonal with four wins and two draws, manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his squad will now embark on a demanding two-game away trip against the United States (Nov. 12) and Canada (Nov. 16).
There’s much more than just World Cup qualifying points on the line here.
After already losing to the USMNT twice this year in the Nations League and Gold Cup finals, Mexico will seek to avoid a potential third consecutive defeat since June.
As for Canada, Mexico have had some issues with John Herdman’s team after narrowly defeating them 2-1 in the Gold Cup semifinals and being held to a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw at the Estadio Azteca in October.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Before Mexico waltz into what could be literally freezing weather in Edmonton next week, they’ll first have to deal with their neighbors and rivals from north of the border.
Here’s what you need to know about El Tri before another thrilling battle against the USMNT, this Friday at FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium (9:10 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN).
If we had to give Tata a grade since the start of World Cup qualifying, a B+ would probably be accurate.
Mexico are undefeated in the Octagonal and haven’t suffered a defeat, and yet most results have been far too close for comfort. Outside of a 3-0 victory over a listless Honduras at the Azteca, Mexico seem to find themselves amid tense battles that end in narrow wins or low-scoring draws.
And while this is expected in Concacaf, where many developing national teams aren’t given enough credit for the progress they’ve made, the bad news for Mexico is that their most difficult tests haven’t yet arrived.
The good news – if we’re being optimists here – is that several of El Tri's key names are charging into this week with some momentum.
Raul Jimenez is looking like his old self for Premier League side Wolves, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano is getting minutes and goals for Napoli in Serie A, Edson Alvarez is flying high with Ajax and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has found a late-career revival.
Game-changers like these can undoubtedly make a difference.
The former Atlanta United boss has tinkered with some different ideas, but we should definitely expect the usual 4-3-3 system from Tata on Friday.
As seen throughout World Cup qualifying, Tata tends to utilize an attack-minded and high-pressing approach that has fullbacks making deep runs down the flanks. With defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez occasionally dropping back between the two central defenders, this can even look like a 3-4-3 at times with the fullbacks playing more of a wingback role.
Will that happen against the USMNT though?
As opposed to facing opponents with fewer attacking options, it might be risky to throw serious numbers forward that can give a player like Brenden Aaronson space to roam.
Mexico’s DNA will have them wanting to control possession and push higher upfield in their signature 4-3-3, but it wouldn’t be a shock if the fullbacks sit back a bit more. Or they could alternate with their high-pressing runs as the other provides more coverage in defense.
Earlier this week, news broke that central defender Cesar Montes had suffered an injury that would keep him out of the current international window. In his place, Chivas’ Gilberto Sepulveda and Atlas’ Jesus Alberto Angulo have been brought in.
Elsewhere in central defensive complications, Celta Vigo’s Nestor Araujo – who was included in the roster call-up – will miss the USMNT game due to earning two yellows in previous qualifiers.
On Thursday night, things went from complicated to seriously worrisome when Martino stated in a pre-game press conference that another central defender, Hector Moreno, might miss out against the United States.
Here are some easy guesses/guarantees regarding Friday’s XI:
- Guillermo Ochoa in net
- Jesus Gallardo at LB
- Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez at RB
- Edson Alvarez as the DM
- Hector Herrera at RCM
- Hirving “Chucky” Lozano as the LW
- Jesus “Tecatito” Corona on the RW
- Raul Jimenez up top
Essentially, three spots are up in the air: LCM, LCB and RCB.
The central defensive pairing is the true issue of the match, though.
With Araujo and Montes unavailable – and Moreno doubtful – there’s a good chance that an untested partnership will be in the heart of the backline. More than likely, it seems probable it could be 23-year-old Johan Vasquez and 34-year-old Julio Cesar “Cata” Dominguez.
Vasquez is a promising but inexperienced name who has just started to claim some Serie A minutes with Genoa in recent weeks. As for Dominguez, the Cruz Azul veteran is solid in the air and imposing with his aggression, although his lack of speed poses a hindrance.
Sepulveda and Angulo are also in the running to step in for Moreno if needed, but they’re long-shots.
With all of this in mind, can Mexico avoid a third straight defeat against Gregg Berhalter's team?
The most glaring difference between the last two meetings and Friday may be the inclusion of Raul Jimenez in Mexico's starting XI. In the same way that he was a missing piece of the puzzle for Wolves in the EPL, Jimenez has also been desperately missed by Tata's team. With Tecatito and Lozano alongside him, there may be no problems with creating goalscoring chances.
As mentioned earlier though, the weak link will be in defense. Whether it be Vazquez, Dominguez or Moreno – or perhaps another combination – there will be a serious lack of cohesion in the heart of the backline.
Let’s not forget that Gallardo and Chaka already have question marks hanging above their heads as the fullbacks.
Nonetheless, in theory, Mexico’s frontline could paper over any cracks and take care of this all on their own. Few teams in Concacaf (or beyond) would feel confident taking on Jimenez, Chucky and Tecatito.
But if they aren’t firing on all cylinders, Tata might need some of his defensive names to exceed expectations Friday night. In this scenario, Ochoa might have to stand on his head as well.