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Nov 15, 2013

Time for individuals to shine for Mexico

If New Zealand, who perhaps in an attempt to borrow some of the mystique and swagger of their rugby team wore black uniforms to the Azteca Stadium to face Mexico, revert back to their classic white jerseys, the image of surrender flags will inevitably come to mind. With a 5-1 advantage, Mexico is assured -- barring a supernatural Armageddon scenario -- of winning the aggregate playoff series and advancing to the World Cup tournament in Brazil.

- Ramos: Mexico is no more a lousy team

It's likely that El Tri could send their very capable U17 team, which recently finished in second place at the Under-17 World Cup, and still qualify. Pity New Zealand a bit. Their one chance in the Azteca was to put out a team of their very best players, but with Ryan Nelsen retired and Winston Reid injured, that wasn't possible.

Even then, the Kiwis' main hope was to get vintage 2013 Mexico under pressure. The El Tri squad for so much of this year has been emotionally fragile, petulant when good play did not immediately yield a goal, paralyzed when facing adversity, and just poor in general. Sure, a good performance now and then might occur in isolation, but as a team, they played badly. Under Miguel Herrera, however, Mexico played well and dominated the Kiwis.

It does former coaches of the squad no favors when fans comment things like, "Even Chepo [Jose Manuel de la Torre] could have beaten New Zealand." Usually the next comment is, "I could coach El Tri and beat the Kiwis too."

While both may possibly be true, it's clear that Herrera's faith in his players -- evidenced by his refusal to bring in European-based options and his swagger in guaranteeing a victory -- resonated with the team.

That was obvious when they played well as a unit. They were patient and persistent and did what had to be done to assure Mexico's passage to the World Cup.

Now that that responsibility is all but taken care of, the next step remains. Herrera & Co. did what the country required for the first leg, but in New Zealand, the motivation this time will be different. The players may have qualified Mexico for the World Cup, but individually, they have no such assurance of a spot in the final squad.

This time, the players will play not for the hopes and dreams of all Mexicans, but for their individual aspirations.

Of course, being a shining star against the flaccid resistance offered by New Zealand doesn't guarantee anything, but it can't hurt. The games played before the World Cup squad is chosen are limited. Looking good in any or all of them is the most any player can do to win final consideration.

For Oribe Peralta, another goal would merely crown his achievement as El Tri's best and most consistent player in a difficult year. If Miguel Layun adds another assist or more, "Todo es culpa de Layun" could become a World Cup banner. If Raul Jimenez manages to seal up a World Cup spot by scoring more, he could become the latest Mexican player to move abroad after the games in Brazil end. At this point, the players are allowed a little selfish motivation in New Zealand to make the most of a chance to show well.

As coach, Herrera also has the opportunity to further consolidate the changes he has made in the squad and to stamp the team with his effusive, enthusiastic personality. One especially important thing that Herrera seems to have brought back to the team is simply joy. Whether celebrating goals on the sideline or on the field, the players and staff, despite the pressure to earn the result, seemed happy in the first leg.

It's easier to love the game when one's team is performing well. Mexico fans have been starved of seeing their team in good form for so long. That's what they will tune in for, now that the angst and tension of seeing El Tri nearly give away a chance at the World Cup has faded. They will watch for improvement, and to start filling in their ideal 11 for Mexico's first World Cup 2014 game.