Mexico national teams' summer of hope transforms into a nightmare
Rewind to before the Copa America Centenario. Mexico was on a winning streak under new coach Juan Carlos Osorio and confidence was high.
Now fast-forward to the 7-0 quarterfinal embarrassment against Chile, which arrived like an ice-cold bucket of water, and the ensuing realization: El Tri must improve significantly if it is to be a realistic and regular World Cup challenger, which needs to be the overall and guiding aim for Mexico.
Following the dreary immediate aftermath of that historic loss, thoughts turned to an interesting group of youngsters at the Olympic Games in Rio. Hirving Lozano was linked with Manchester United, he and his Pachuca teammates Rodolfo Pizarro and Erick Gutierrez had just won the Liga MX title, and names like Carlos Salcedo and Cesar Montes were generating excitement.
Rio 2016 was supposed to be the youngsters' moment to bulldoze through a tricky Group C and prove that they could handle the pressure of defending the gold medal, demonstrating in the process that a good number of players had enough talent to push for full national team places soon. Instead, the 1-0 loss against Korea Republic in Brasilia on Wednesday saw the team crash out at the group stage. Add to that the non-appearance of the women's team in the Olympics through a failure to qualify and it feels like 2013, that nightmarish year in which Mexico almost missed out on the World Cup.
At the time, some Mexico fans suggested they would have preferred the team to miss out on Brazil 2014 and force Mexican football to take a long, hard look at itself and make some significant changes. But, El Tri scraped through and chugged along to the round of 16, as usual.
Watching on in Brazil was full national team coach Osorio, the Colombian charged with elevating El Tri's status. He had no direct role in the Olympic side, but was in attendance to see their shortcomings. Osorio left the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia without any words for the press on Wednesday, although there was a report suggesting he would have preferred coach Raul Gutierrez to rotate players.
Gutierrez cut a forlorn figure after the game, taking responsibility for the defeat, but indicating he wouldn't have changed anything.
"I would call up these same players for next Olympics if they started tomorrow," Gutierrez said after the game.
Everything is easier with hindsight, but Osorio should have been in charge of this Olympic side. He is a manager that needs time to work with players in training, and the youngsters could have gotten valuable insight into his methods, even if it would have been harsh on Gutierrez's project. That said, there isn't even any guarantee the Osorio reign is going to be one that lasts. The history of managerial changes in Mexico's national team suggests it won't. He's already been handed one vote of confidence after the 7-0.
For left-back Jorge Torres Nilo -- who competed at both tournaments this summer -- Mexico "has to change its mentality." It is something Osorio touched on in a recent interview, but that change has to come right from the top of the federation. At present, the friendlies in the United States, regular turnovers in management (and therefore philosophy) and tendency in the Liga MX -- highlighted by the new 10/8 rule -- away from giving young Mexican players a chance in their own domestic top flight directly damages El Tri's chances of success. They are all things that can be fixed if there is a will, unlike the low level of CONCACAF competition Mexico faces in World Cup qualifying.
Yet scouring through the ruins of El Tri's summer, there are some positives despite the results. Mexico hasn't suddenly become a footballing backwater, devoid of quality players. The potential is still there to be exploited.
The positive spin sees the 7-0 defeat as a lesson in humility and a low which Osorio should be able to dismantle and reconstruct. The psychological scar needs to be dealt with, but it's not like it was a vastly different team from the one that defeated Uruguay, or the one that didn't concede a goal in Osorio's first seven matches in charge.
At Rio 2016, the team failed as a unit. Tactically, it never looked right in a 4-4-2. However, there was still enough individual talent on display. The 2-2 draw with Germany proved just that. Even against Korea Republic, Mexico was the better team despite obvious deficiencies in creating chances and up front when they were forced to chase the game. Osorio can genuinely look forward to working with Gutierrez, Salcedo, Lozano, Montes and Pizarro. Ideally, some of those youngsters will move to Europe and get to the most competitive league their talent allows, but they'll likely have to push for it, like Jesus Corona had to. Osorio will be desperate for that to happen.
Back in 2012, it wasn't popular to say in Mexico that Olympics aren't all that important in terms of what they mean to world football. For Brazil, the gold represents the completion of a clean sweep of titles, but for a country like Mexico, the Olympics are a stepping-stone to build from. If five players from the Rio 2016 Olympic side move to a top-four European league and becoming regulars in the full national team two or three years from now, that can be considered a huge success, even more so than winning gold.
Of that gold winning team in 2012, only Hector Herrera (Porto), Raul Jimenez (Benefica), Marco Fabian (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Diego Reyes (Porto) are now in Europe, and of the 18 players that won gold in London, only Herrera is a definite starter at the full national team level. Midfield general Jorge "Chaton" Enriquez, 25, who seemed destined to be a fixture in El Tri, is now playing at Coras FC in Mexico's second division.
Moving forward, Mexico will be absolutely fine. But the real question is whether those making the big decisions want El Tri to be better than that. If so, are they willing to make the necessary changes?
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.