COLUMBUS, Ohio – Their long-embattled coach is finally unemployed. They’re fourth in the Hexagonal with three games to play. And their biggest rival is on the docket at a stadium in which their failure is infamous.
This certainly isn’t Mexico’s finest hour, but don’t get the wrong idea about El Tri, goalkeeper Tim Howard emphasized at Sunday's US training session here ahead of Tuesday's USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier (8 pm ET, ESPN and UniMas).
José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre may have finally been shown the door, but nobody in the American camp interprets Mexico’s struggles as vulnerability.
“Quite the opposite,” Howard told reporters. “Tuesday night they’re going to be a heck of a team to play against. They’re not going to be this wounded animal that everyone thinks they are.
“I think when it comes to this game, we’re fearful of what Mexico brings,” Howard added. “They’re a tough team no matter what anyone says about how they’re playing at the moment or what they’re going through. It doesn’t matter.”
If anything, Mexico have one less distraction to worry about after de la Torre was finally relieved of his duties following months of speculation. In his place ahead of what many see as a must-win match against the US is Olympic gold-medal-winning manager Luis Fernando Tena.
And while the Mexican media may be celebrating the fact that their primary target for criticism has been vanquished, US manager Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t among those happy to see de la Torre out of a job.
“From a coach’s view, you’re always sad when you see a very, very good coach leaving his post,” Klinsmann said Sunday. “I followed that from a distance and I’m a big fan of 'Chepo' de la Torre. But now it’s their decision and Fernando Tena takes over and he’s a very good coach as well. Very experienced. We’re not looking at the Mexican situation too much. We have a lot of respect for that team.”
But, as always, nobody should confuse respect with deference.
The US know they’re one victory and a Honduras result against Panama from qualifying for Brazil, and the fact that they can heap even more misery on their archrivals certainly isn’t too far from their minds this week.
“They’re down now,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said, “so hopefully we can keep them there.”
A US win, coupled with the same result for Honduras, would leave Mexico five points adrift of the three automatic qualifying spots with two games to play, including a trip to San José to face group leaders Costa Rica.
The Americans aren’t particularly worried about that at this point, though. For now, Mexico are the USA's next obstacle on their path to Brazil, and any desire to pile on El Tri is overridden by the possibility of qualifying for the World Cup with two Hex games to play.
“First of all, we have to take care of business and get ourselves booked to Brazil,” Howard said. “What happens to Mexico happens. It’s not our concern. What will feel really good is to beat them at home and get ourselves qualified.”