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Oct 31, 2013

Mexico’s latest gamble based on intangibles, superstitions

SAN DIEGO -- It's an unfair, uneven debate that produces headaches for those devoted to the logical side of sports. The numbers, the analytics, the tangible data ... all of it takes a back seat to what many purists will argue holds the true essence of the game: the intangibles.

By any means necessary, Mexico is obligated to beat New Zealand in a home-and-away series next month, but don't expect any of the European-based El Tri stars to attend.

That's right; Javier Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos, Guillermo Ochoa, Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Javier Aquino, Andres Guardado and, of course, Carlos Vela, are all names who will sit out and, like the rest of us, watch the games on TV.

- Canales: El Tri find hope in Finland win - Report: Herrera won't use European stars - Marshall: El Tri player ratings

Why? How could Mexico's best players sitting out of the most important games of their lives be considered a good idea? Those dreaded intangibles.

"They're not bad players. On the contrary, they're great players. But these trips are so long, there's no time to adapt and get in rhythm, and that's why we're thinking of not bringing in anybody," a satisfied Miguel Herrera said after beating Finland 4-2.

The Mexico coach seemed convinced that "rhythm," "adaptation" and "jet lag" would conspire criminally against his fragile, newly assembled squad, and that outsiders with higher expectations at the club level would somehow hurt, not help, his chances of putting Mexico through to the other side and toward Brazil 2014.

In essence, America and Leon will get Mexico to the World Cup, not, say, Villarreal or Porto. Reyes won't do in the back for Mexico as long as Juan Carlos Valenzuela and Francisco Rodriguez hold up. (Valenzuela scored an own goal against Finland.) Sorry, dos Santos, but Luis Montes is likely to give El Tri a better chance. If Moises Munoz can score goals as well as stopping them, what’s the use for Ochoa?

Short of calling this an emergency B-team, Herrera is showing that he's not yet made the full transition into national team manager. Thrust into the role, he's become a glorified club coach whose idea of the country's best has boiled down to a Liga MX all-star team. Desperate times, desperate measures is the commonly used phrase for this type of situation.

Mexico's series against New Zealand thus presents an interesting argument that is slightly independent of whether they win or lose. With all those European stars on the pitch (sans Vela), Mexico flopped in the Hex during the Jose Manuel de la Torre era. With Herrera, it remains to be seen whether the Liga MX Tri can put the country over the hump. Even then, we will ask: Was it the players or the manager?

No matter what the answer, the argument of holding out your best players because of intangibles and long plane rides seems somewhat strange and entirely proprietary for this sport. West Coast NFL fans will attest to it when their teams fall flat when they face an East Coast rival, with jet lag and an early start time hounding their performance. But when they win? Clearly it's because the San Diego Chargers are miles better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Then again, who isn't in the NFL?)

The FMF has allowed Chepo de la Torre to live and die by his sword, and even in Victor Manuel Vucetich's shortened stint, the former Monterrey manager paid homage to his roots by ignoring Club America and assembling a team largely derived from his former club and Monterrey rival, Tigres.

Now, a third manager will implant his own ideas, style and, yes -- unfounded superstitions into a team already just short of turning to voodoo to ensure success, with zero margin for error and the oft-repeated millions of dollars at stake. Logic be damned.