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Jan 29, 2014

Mexico finally finds the right path to Brazil

SAN ANTONIO -- No year tested the mettle of any Mexico fan more than 2013. In what started off as a year full of promise coming on the heels of a gold-medal win at the London Olympics nearly ended in shock on a soggy October night in San Jose, Costa Rica, when Mexico was barely saved from World Cup elimination.

Fans were disgusted and frustrated, and many were humiliated that it was their longtime rival, the United States, that had to bail out El Tri and offer a second chance for a ticket to Brazil.

Time has softened that attitude a bit as a festive 54,000 packed inside San Antonio’s Alamodome to watch El Tri’s first match of 2014, a 4-0 friendly win against South Korea. But afterward, inside the bowels of the stadium, there was the sense that the Mexican players know they have a lot of work to do to convince their fans that the 2014 version is a far cry from the bumbling outfit of 2013.

“The fans have always offered us great support. I think that we are on the right path and I believe the fans are aware of the improvement that Mexico is having on the field,” Chivas Guadalajara striker Aldo de Nigris told ESPNFC.

Head coach Miguel Herrera was brought in to navigate Mexico successfully through the intercontinental playoff with New Zealand and is now tasked with guiding Mexico in the World Cup this summer. In four matches, the former Club America boss who has eschewed calling in players from Europe is a perfect four wins from four matches using Liga MX players, albeit against B sides from Finland and South Korea and the two-legged affair with the Kiwis. It is hard to truly decipher if this is an improved Mexico, or the same Mexico that charged its way to the 2011 Gold Cup title or Olympic gold, but it’s certainly more competitive inside the squad which is translating onto the field.

“We have a hunger to win. A lot of players are competing for spots and everyone wants to be there at the World Cup,” defender Jorge Torres Nilo said.

“There is want-to, a desire and working mentality in this team, and we just have to keep that going,” striker Oribe Peralta said.

For the first time in a while, there is the impression that Mexico is actually a team glad to be on the field. The suffocating whistles that rained down from the Azteca faithful throughout the Hexagonal took a toll. They are playing with a clean slate, for now, and the lack of pressure felt in early 2014 can be a springboard to success in Brazil.

“Having that World Cup ticket, it is allowing us to work with less pressure and with a different dynamic. It’s helped a lot,” said defender and captain Rafa Marquez.

“We have to take advantage of each game and most importantly, enjoy the experience and do the utmost to meet what the coach wants. The results will then come,” Torres Nilo added.

For anyone who has closely followed CONCACAF throughout the years, Mexico -- more so the fans than the players -- has always likened itself to being the “Gigante” of the region. The stats back that up in some way: More Gold Cup titles than anyone else; a Confederations Cup title in 1999; Olympic gold and a two-time finalist in the Copa America.

Yet the last 365 days did little to suggest that El Tri still stood atop their North and Central American and Caribbean rivals: a semifinal elimination in the Gold Cup at the hands of Panama, and of course the dismal fourth place showing in the Hexagonal. For grizzled veteran Marquez, there is still a slight wincing in his face at the mention of how Mexico back-doored its way into the World Cup, and there is plenty humility in his voice acknowledging the work the lies ahead for he and his teammates before June.

"It certainly wasn’t the most pleasing way in how we qualified," Marquez noted. "I don’t think that anybody likes to qualify in that manner, but in the end we did it and we have to take advantage of this opportunity.

"You have to demonstrate that you are the gigante of CONCACAF. More than ever the levels are more even and all the other national teams have improved. Mexico has a lot of work to do,” he concluded.

For now, a Mexico under construction, a long, gigante road to Brazil awaits.