Mexico's Gold Cup side a work in progress, not the finished article
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- It's sometimes difficult to sift through the layers of hype and/or criticism and arrive at objective conclusions when assessing Mexico. El Tri simply generates so much interest.
Over three Gold Cup group games in the United States against minnows El Salvador, Jamaica and Curacao, El Tri has drawn an average of 48,500 fans per match. The news conferences for coach Juan Carlos Osorio are packed and it doesn't seem ridiculous to suggest there could be more journalists covering Mexico at the Gold Cup than all the other nations put together.
The green-clad supporters packing the stadiums are all there to cheer on the side and expect to see El Tri win. If the victory includes multiple goals to assert the notion of Mexico's regional dominance, then all the better. But here's the dilemma for Mexico at the 2017 Gold Cup: the experimental squad and tournament (the best players were all at the Confederations Cup) is all about Osorio testing and getting to know the players likely to be challenging the established figures over coming years. It's about those players getting used to life with Mexico; seeing how comfortable they are and readying them for the future.
Those inside the squad know that. And perhaps that is why Jesus Duenas was slightly upset after last Thursday's 0-0 draw against Jamaica, after which Mexico was booed and chants of "Osorio out" rained down from the stands in Denver.
"People are like that," he said. "If you lose or draw everything is against you; if you win you are the best. We don't play to make people happy, we play to make ourselves content personally, as a group, and then as a consequence the people [will be happy]."
There was outrage in Mexico and Duenas' words became the main talking point on many sports shows. The Tigres midfielder was forced to apologize and while his words may have been slightly clumsy, he was only being honest.
The group stage was a chance for Osorio and the coaching staff to draw some conclusions, safe in the knowledge that the standard of opposition wasn't likely to complicate Mexico's passage to the quarterfinals. The Colombian coach used 21 of his 23 available players over the group stage in a rotation that is extreme even for Osorio.
But the Gold Cup has not been pretty so far for El Tri. There are growing pains, clear evidence that the squad hasn't played together much and difficulties both in defensive cohesion and attacking incisiveness. The win over El Salvador was generally a good display, but Jamaica frustrated Mexico, who were then reliant on a great goalkeeping performance against Curacao.
On the positive side, Elias Hernandez has stepped up to be a major contender for a spot moving forward and goalkeeper Jesus Corona has shown he still has it at 36. There have been solid performances from midfielder Orbelin Pineda, a deserved debut for centre-back Cesar Montes and 22-year-old Erick Gutierrez has captained the side.
"We continue consolidating a very good group of talented, young players than are the present and will be the future of Mexican football," said Osorio ahead of the Curacao game. "That factor, for me, is most gratifying and what I enjoy most in life."
It's a tricky situation for Osorio. If the scrutiny wasn't so intense, the experimentation would be more readily accepted and the wobbly performances viewed for what they are in the context of a tournament that was never the priority this summer. Now Osorio has to walk the tight-rope between fielding players -- and combinations of players -- he wants to see and also winning the tournament, which is pretty much the only thing that could happen to calm the critics, at least temporarily.
Memories can also be short. Two years ago Mexico may have won the Gold Cup but El Tri was far from convincing. Mexico finished second to Trinidad and Tobago in the group, was reliant on a very late and dubious penalty against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal, another couple of penalties against Panama in a raucous and controversial semi, before finally playing a decent game against Jamaica in the final.
And all that was with a squad including Carlos Vela, Guillermo Ochoa, Guardado, Giovani dos Santos, Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Jonathan dos Santos.
This time around and with Mexico's reserve squad not clicking as fans, pundits and Osorio himself would have liked, it is clear that the United States is now favourite for the Gold Cup.
Bringing in Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jose Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Darlington Nagbe at half-time of the competition gives the U.S. the edge, although the experience that Mexico's young squad would get from playing Americans in the final on July 26 would be worth its weight in gold regardless of the result.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.