Opportunities to shine for Mexico's newcomers in 2017 opener vs. Iceland
LAS VEGAS -- If anyone thought the Mexico national team's trip to Las Vegas for Wednesday's friendly against Iceland was more for recreation than business, the squad's first training session was all you needed to see to dispel that particular idea.
With the bright lights of The Strip in the background, tackles flew in -- Jurgen Damm temporarily went down with an ankle knock -- and there was an unusually high level of intensity as coach Juan Carlos Osorio bellowed orders at his troops, demanding sharp passing and concentration.
There is clearly a fierce competition, as players attempt to scramble over each other and impress Osorio and make June's Confederations Cup squad, in order to put themselves in a prime spot to be at Russia 2018.
El Tri's first game of 2017 therefore comes as an opportunity for this group of Liga MX-based players -- plus L.A. Galaxy's Giovani dos Santos -- in a busy year in which Mexico plays in eight World Cup qualifiers, the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup.
European-based stars like Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Hector Herrera have their places virtually assured, but Osorio is keen to elevate the next batch of Mexican talent to foster competition.
The first names to jump out are Hirving Lozano and Jurgen Damm, two wingers with the talent to become starters ahead of the World Cup. Osorio has already talked in glowing terms about both, although they still have work to do if they are to nudge ahead of Carlos Vela and Corona to be regular starters.
The return of Pachuca's Raul Lopez to the squad is also intriguing and he'll surely get the start against Iceland. The right-back position is problematic and there aren't exactly a host of options if Osorio is seeking a more attack-minded player to back-up regular Miguel Layun. Crucially, Lopez can also play as a wing-back, should Osorio decides to employ three center-backs.
The three potential debutants for Mexico are Monterrey goalkeeper Hugo Gonzalez, Atlas left-back Luis Reyes and Club America center-back Edson Alvarez. Of the three, Alvarez -- who America coach Ricardo La Volpe believes possesses similarities with Franz Beckenbauer -- stands out. At just 19 years old and with only nine Liga MX starts under his belt, these are early days in Alvarez's career, but the way the youngster carries the ball and reads the game point to a big future.
"Edson is a very technical player with a good aerial game," said Osorio when asked by ESPN FC in Tuesday's news conference. "It seems like he has that pause, that extra second to make good decisions, whether he plays in a back three or back four [and] we think he can be very effective in midfield.
"He is indeed one of the Mexican players with a great present and very prominent future."
At Mexico training in Las Vegas https://t.co/mVkPYOi2gQ- Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) February 7, 2017
Up front, Osorio could desperately use a performance from striker Alan Pulido, who is now starting regularly for Chivas, but has failed to recapture the form that saw him make Mexico's squad for the 2014 World Cup.
Picking the starting XI if a difficult proposition and in Monday's training session, the Colombian manager set up teams in in a 3-4-3 formation and 4-3-3. It is entirely possible both will be used in the game against Iceland. Osorio could be tempted by handing the newcomers more playing time, but it also entirely possible that he'll be encouraging those that have either been in the side or on the fringe to step up and take their chance.
One player that won't be involved is Cruz Azul goalkeeper Jesus Corona, who is out of the squad with a left elbow injury, according to a press release for El Tri on Tuesday. The battle for the start in goal is now between Alfredo Talavera and rookie Gonzalez.
For Iceland -- three places behind Mexico at 21 in the FIFA rankings -- this is a chance for the younger generation to shine and start to prove that the historic performance in Euro 2016 last summer was the beginning of a consistent improvement in Icelandic football. With 12 of the 18 players in the Iceland squad under 23 and all currently in their offseason, Mexico should be able to win without too many complications.
Coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said he expects his team to play a similar style as the one that saw Iceland reach the Euro 2016 quarterfinals last summer, even if it is a different group of players. Goalkeeper Frederick Schram -- who has been on trial at Premier League side Hull City -- is excited about the opportunity to play in front of a crowd that will be over 25,000.
"Of course, it's something big for us. For a lot of the young guys it's a big experience," said Schram ahead of training on Tuesday. "If you're not ready to play in front of so many people then you don't have to play football because it's everybody's dream to play in front of a big crowd every week."
The last two times these teams met the score was 0-0, but you get the feeling that this Mexico side is determined to start the year on the right foot will not be holding back against the inexperienced Icelanders.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.