Mexico eye future with young and untried Gold Cup squad
"We're here to become champions," Mexico midfielder Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez declared on arrival in San Diego on Tuesday ahead of El Tri's Gold Cup opener against El Salvador on Sunday.
Mexico almost always goes into this tournament as the favorite and Hernandez's comments are standard for a side that has won three of the past four Gold Cups, but this time things aren't so cut-and-dried for the seven-time champions.
The United States, Costa Rica and Mexico all have weakened squads, but it is the Stars and Stripes and the Ticos that have more regulars for the tournament. Mexico took its strongest possible squad -- not just the starting team -- to the Confederations Cup in Russia.
Let's be very clear: If Mexico's World Cup squad was picked tomorrow, perhaps only Jesus Corona, Jesus Duenas, Luis Reyes and Orbelin Pineda of the Gold Cup squad would be included by coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Not one would be considered a starter.
This is a Mexico squad loosely showcasing Nos. 23-46 in the nation's depth chart. Only Houston Dynamo's Erick Torres is based outside of Mexico and the team has had just two friendlies to find some chemistry. Neither of those matches was coached by Osorio, because the 56-year-old was in Russia guiding the first team to a fourth-place finish at the Confederations Cup.
Only veteran goalkeepers Jesus Corona and Moises Munoz, as well as Hugo Ayala, Jesus Molina, Elias Hernandez and Jesus Duenas have more than 10 caps. Defender Alejandro Mayorga hasn't played a single first-team game for Chivas and could be a rare case of a player debuting for country before club. In comparison, Costa Rica has 17 players with more than 10 caps, while the United States has 10 and both will see an opportunity to seize the CONCACAF crown Mexico obtained in controversial fashion in this tournament two years ago.
That doesn't mean Mexico's squad doesn't possess enough quality to make a deep run and win the Gold Cup, or that the competition isn't important.
If you strip away the pundits' saber rattling back in Mexico and the fierce criticism Osorio has received and analyze what the Colombian is attempting to do, managing the transition to a new generation of Mexican players is absolutely vital to the side's longer-term goals.
There is a humility in Osorio's rhetoric that doesn't play up to the manufactured hullabaloo surrounding El Tri in the same way as past coach Miguel Herrera. Osorio talks of Mexico needing to "step up" to the global elite, implying there is much work to do and Mexico isn't as good as many appear to think. The former Atletico Nacional manager stresses the importance of increasing internal competition within the squad to give him better quality choices when the bigger competitions come up.
Rafa Marquez recently complained about development being "too slow" in Mexico. Matias Almeyda -- coach of all-Mexican club Chivas -- has also talked with incredulity about a 23-year-old turning up to preseason training having never played a first-team game and added he wanted the club to produce players ready for first-team action at age 18.
It is an issue that must be addressed. Germany general manager Oliver Bierhoff spoke after the 4-1 semifinal win over Mexico of his federation's "10-year plan" to get where Die Mannschaft are today. The fresh crop of players at the Confederations Cup proved just how deep Germany's talents go.
Mexico's historical lack of long-term vision means it is a significant distance behind Germany in almost all respects, but the Gold Cup is the moment that a new generation can make their first tentative steps as a group onto the international scene. For Edson Alvarez, Cesar Montes, Raul Lopez, Luis Reyes, Orbelin Pineda, Erick Gutierrez, Rodolfo Pizarro, Alejandro Mayorga and Jesus Gallardo the stakes are high. That group of players has to grasp the opportunity with both hands and make a statement that they are ready for more international football.
Mexican soccer needs to gradually overhaul the base of players who have taken the nation close to disaster in World Cup qualification and been defeated in the first knockout round of an international competition outside CONCACAF three times in the past four summers.
El Tri should not be considered automatic favorites for the Gold Cup with its inexperienced squad, but that doesn't take away from how crucial the tournament is for Osorio's planning, even in the face of the crescendo of criticism ahead of the competition.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.