Mexico's historic win over U.S. injects life into Juan Carlos Osorio's tenure
PANAMA CITY -- There was no shortage of storylines in preparation for last Friday's World Cup qualifier between CONCACAF rivals Mexico and the United States. From the atmosphere around the match to whether the U.S. could repeat the dos a cero dosage that irks El Tri fans, there was a lot to take in.
But buried underneath it all was a deeper question concerning Juan Carlos Osorio and his future as Mexico national team coach. The game was not a win-or-get-fired affair, but there was a certain amount of pressure on the manager for two reasons. First, Osorio had been adamant that the Mexico players were fully supportive of his project with El Tri. Second, the team hadn't faced a high-pressure test against quality opposition since the embarrassing 7-0 defeat to Chile last June in the Copa America Centenario.
One 2-1 victory doesn't mean those questions are fully answered or that Mexico is suddenly on course to be world champion, but the famous win over the Stars and Stripes has bought Osorio -- whose record is now 13 wins, 2 draws and a loss -- time and handed his tenure in charge a boost.
Knives were being sharpened in anticipation of Osorio failing in El Tri's most difficult match of the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying. His rotation policy has been severely criticized, and some even suggested he should leave if the team did not win at least one of its first two Hex games. Now, he's guided Mexico to wins in traditionally difficult places like Honduras, Canada and Columbus. He's given his critics some powerful food for thought.
But there was also an important aesthetic aspect to Mexico's win. Osorio sent out an outwardly attacking starting XI that was able to dominate the game for most of one half and eventually came out with three important points.
"In the game [the players] showed that they have the moral courage to compete anywhere, that the team is capable of overcoming adversity, that it is capable of winning games in the later minutes like happens at international level with very good national teams," said Osorio after the match.
"Moral courage" is an interesting term. A team sheet including Carlos Vela, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, Giovani dos Santos and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was all you needed to know about Mexico's intent. There is an inherent risk in the strategy of taking the game to strong opposition and attacking in volume and number -- one that Chile exploited back in June -- but it was also a statement of intent from Osorio. The implicit message to the players, fans and media was that his Mexico team could go to Columbus, Ohio to face arguably its most difficult opponent in qualifying and impose its game. El Tri will try to do the same wherever it goes.
"We are going to keep insisting on the playing style with which we feel we identify, especially if we have talented players playing well," stated Osorio.
Friday's victory wasn't flawless by any means. Andres Guardado's injury in the 28th minute disrupted the midfield, and the U.S. gradually got a foothold in the game, creating more chances and eventually equalizing early in the second half. That raised more questions for El Tri: How would it react to adversity? Would heads go down as the crowd roared the home side on?
We now know the answer to that question, and the pressure on Osorio has immediately been lifted. The Mexican side was able to gather itself and even grab the victory through Rafa Marquez's late goal.
"I think that Mexican football and the Mexican national team is extraordinary," said Osorio. "[The victory] generates confidence and more credibility."
The next challenge is Panama on Tuesday, with Mexico traveling south Sunday evening. The difference in temperature between a freezing Columbus and humid Panama City is around 26 degrees Celsius and Los Canaleros are coming off an important 1-0 victory in San Pedro Sula over Honduras.
It will be a tough test against the wily and experienced Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez and the hostile Panamanian environment. But in place of the nervousness and speculation over the manager's job that would have surrounded the game had Mexico lost in Columbus, a needed jolt of confidence has been given to Osorio's term in charge.
The dos a cero venue that has seen Mexico managers suffer was converted into one that injected new life into Osorio's future.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.