Herrera looks back and forward
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While Miguel Herrera was a social media sensation at the World Cup, with his bombastic sideline outbursts and selfies from his hotel room balcony, almost forgotten was the way he resurrected the fortunes of the Mexico national team.
They only qualified for the World Cup thanks to some help from the U.S. but played scintillating soccer in Brazil and narrowly missed out on reaching the quarterfinals. The nation's love affair with El Tri had been restored.
Sometimes the follow-up act can be tougher than the first run, however, and now Herrera has the task of moving Mexico forward. A crowded calendar that includes the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a pair of Copa America tournaments, the Olympics and -- oh, yeah -- World Cup qualifying, beckons over the next four years.
Herrera was in town to promote next month's friendly against Chile, which will take place on Sept. 6 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. He is quick with a smile, and his trademark long hair is more closely cropped than it was this summer, but he also shows his forward focus when he says he has his sights on next summer's Gold Cup, which Mexico must lift in order to play off versus the United States for a 2017 Confederations Cup berth:
"That's a mandatory win."
But before we looked forward, we began by reflecting on Mexico's World Cup campaign and, specifically, its exit on a hot day in Fortaleza.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN FC: In the round of 16 against the Netherlands, do you feel manager Louis van Gaal manipulated the system to get the water break in the second half so he could talk to his players and make tactical switches?
Herrera: I think so. They won in that aspect, in that water break, but more than that, they were able to get more organized and break our rhythm. It wasn't his fault, but it was the rule that was set because of the temperature. But I think the rhythm we lost. We lost the ball possession. It wasn't a team that dominated us, but they were closer, they tried to attack. He says now they changed their tactics, but he didn't do that. We would get the ball and just give it back, then they would come at us. That's where they were smart, they were intelligent. They were getting the ball back and we started losing ball possession. Then we gave the opportunity for the ref to change things, and that was our fault.
ESPN FC: Were you surprised at the attention you personally received at the World Cup?
MH: Yes, very surprised. I thought the surprise was going to be the players, the team, but I think it was just the celebration. Starting from Hector [Gonzalez Inarritu, director of national teams], Justino Compean who is the president of our federation, to the equipment manager, we had great emotion, we were united. Those celebrations at the bench, we made a good group. Sometimes it was me, it was the physical therapist, the other teammates. We were there to celebrate the result.
ESPN FC: A lot was made during the World Cup about how expressive you are on the sideline. Is that a calculated approach where you were trying to transmit belief to the players, or is that just who you are?
MH: [Laughs]. That's how I am. It's natural. When I'm on the bench, I'm focused. I'm trying to transmit to the players what I want to see, giving them signals, making sure that they're focused to see if we can get better, change things, modify things. But when the goal is there, I'm one more fan. I'm closer to the field, so I feel it. It's vibrant. I feel like another fan in the stadium. It's very hard to score a goal, so why don't we celebrate it, especially when it's one of your teams? You want to celebrate it, it's deserved. That's how you feel. I feel like I have a passion for soccer, as if I was a player or a fan. I'm very emotional.
ESPN FC: You made a point to engage the fans on Twitter. I remember that shot on the balcony where the fans were behind you. Was that spontaneous? Did you just think of that in the moment or did you think beforehand that you needed to reach out to the fans?
MH: It was spontaneous. That night, on the balcony, Hector and I were eating, and the people who do our scouting of opponents came and told us to say hi to the fans. And we were still chatting and then the third time they told us, we said, "OK, let's say hi to the fans." We went to the balcony and it was just so impressive, seeing all those Mexican fans there, and then we looked at the building and the players waving their shirts. We asked the players to come down to come and chat with the fans. Those are spontaneous things that we didn't plan. It was fun, it was exciting, we were taking selfies. We enjoyed every moment of that.
ESPN FC: How have you carried that drive, that intensity you had as a player, into your coaching?
MH: The same intensity, I give it to the players. I transmit it, so that they are aggressive, so that they understand the goal. The success that they have will take all of us together. If they're not successful, then we're not successful. Then, more than likely, we won't have a job. But we need to transmit that intensity, that they live for that passion. If they do that, then they'll be a step ahead of their opponents.
ESPN FC: Eric Wynalda tells a story of how he played against you and he says you insulted him and kicked him the entire game. Then when the whistle blew you came up to him and you shook his hand and said "Great game." He said he was afraid of you at the final whistle, he wasn't sure what you were going to do. Is your memory the same?
MH: [Smiles]. Yes, he was a very good player. We have good memories of the one time we faced each other at international level, and today the U.S. has grown. That fight that we had was just intense. I think the players, when we played, it's left on the field. Any arguments you have, once it ends, we're professionals and it ends with a handshake. I think I saw him when he was in Mexico and I said hello to him and I wasn't with the national team anymore. I've always said, whatever takes place on the field is left on the field.
ESPN FC: When you first took over El Tri, what problems did you see?
MH: I think the biggest problem was the lack of trust among the players. When things don't go the way they're supposed to, we started losing confidence, trust. I saw that the coaches and players were not trusting each other. That happens to everyone. It's a cycle. When things don't turn out the way you want, you make changes, and again, you start losing trust. You're not calm enough to make decisions, but I think that was very fundamental. In order for us to have a complete process, obviously Chepo [de la Torre] had the process going. Obviously when we got there with the players, we had to make them feel secure, we had to transmit to them that confidence, that trust that we have in them. Luckily enough, we were able to do that.
ESPN FC: How were you able to change that belief, that confidence?
MH: The first part was bringing in America players. I had been working with them for two years, and we had that fundamental base. Then we combined that with some players from Leon. After we [qualified], we started, along with Hector, to look at the players, including the ones that were in Europe. Hector knew the European players. We started getting close to them, having chats with them, starting to transmit to them what we saw on the field. And we tried to be honest with them and have good healthy competition. From there that's when the players started to get back into form, and get into that level of play that we hadn't seen in a while.
ESPN FC: Historically you've been a manager that loved to attack, how has that philosophy evolved, and how did you apply that to the national team?
MH: In the World Cup, it's a very short tournament, and if you just attack and they score a goal, you don't have that time [to recover]. So we started planning, and we tried to have a balanced team that can attack, but also defend and be attentive to the defensive line. You have three matches to find that fourth game [in the round of 16]. So you have to have a team that is very conscious and very focused. We made a goal, and then we would drop 15 [yards]. Then we would take advantage of the spaces. But when the game is 0-0, we would have a team that would attack, but also defend.
ESPN FC: Has that changed over the years? You were criticized in the past for being too attack-minded.
MH: Yes, I changed. Before I was just attack, and the league gives you that opportunity to attack. Then you can get a little crazy and determined. But you have to understand, to become one of the best coaches, it's the one that has a bit more balance, to defend and attack, and the one that has more ball possession. But you start learning that and start transferring that to the players.
ESPN FC: There's a debate here in the U.S. about what is best for players. Should they stay in this country or go abroad? What's that debate like in Mexico at the moment?
MH: I would love to have the players leave for Europe. That's not my decision but the [clubs'] decision because of what the players cost. But I think we earn more with experienced competition. The competition [among players] actually grows, it's a higher level. But I think in the Mexican league we have a good standard with our players. We have one of the top 10 leagues in the world. That decision has to go with the teams and the players, their families, their agents. Without a doubt, if they went to Europe, they'd earn more experience.
ESPN FC: Obviously, Chicharito Hernandez has had a difficult time at Manchester United. Should he leave?
MH: I think he needs to leave. I think [Juventus] would be a good option for him. When a coach doesn't want you -- when you have your best experience, your best moment with them, and now the coach that wanted you is no longer there -- it's time to move. I think there are a lot of opportunities. They are not bad opportunities. If he goes to Juventus that would be an extraordinary team. Without a doubt, it would be a nice change for him. Hopefully he'll see more minutes.
ESPN FC: You were able to bring Gio Dos Santos back into the team for the World Cup and he performed well. What's the current situation with Carlos Vela?
MH: Today, we're starting from zero. Everybody is going to have the same possibility and opportunity. There will be a moment when Hector and I will look and talk to Vela. But we're very conscious of his thoughts, and we're clear that if he doesn't want to come to our call-up, and without an explanation, then we are going to close the door, completely. Vela is a great player, hopefully we can count on him. He's a player that can make a difference. Giovani, if he keeps that level of play ... he's matured. He's a player with great quality, important qualities. If he maintains that level, then he'll continue.
ESPN FC: El Tri seems to be moving in a positive direction; your team played very well at the World Cup. How do you keep that momentum going forward?
MH: With results. Results are what keep you going. Working with the players, making sure they maintain that passion. We're going to be looking at players, observing those that want to play. That's going to help us create more competition, it will keep everyone on their toes.
We'll have new players, young players who are doing well in Mexico. We're not cutting anyone, we're not retiring people. But we have to be prepared for anything to happen. Obviously we're going to look at players to see if they're capable of being at the international level.
ESPN FC: You have a lot tournaments coming up. You have the Gold Cup, Copa America, Copa America Centenario, Pan American Games, the Olympics. You mentioned earlier today that you're going to have two teams?
MH: Yes, we're going to have to have two teams. Not A or B, just two solid teams. Copa America in Chile and Gold Cup. In the Gold Cup, we have to win in order to face the U.S. to qualify for the Confederations Cup. That's a mandatory win.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.