Honduras defeat disappointing but not the end of the world for Mexico
It was three points from six for Mexico in what turned out to be a disappointing end to World Cup qualifying for El Tri.
Coach Juan Carlos Osorio and his players were desperate to finish the Hexagonal stage of qualifying undefeated, but followed the 3-1 win last Friday against Trinidad and Tobago in San Luis Potosi by slipping to a 3-2 defeat against Honduras in Central America.
Here's what we learned from Mexico's final two games of the Hex:
Things could be much worse for Mexico
As the knives were being sharpened following Mexico's loss to Honduras and critics like Hugo Sanchez were laying into Osorio, it is worth remembering that almost exactly four years ago, Mexico was in the same position as the United States heading into the last game of qualifying.
Needing a result in Costa Rica, El Tri failed to produce, while the United States managed to score two late goals to overcome Panama away to send Mexico into a playoff against New Zealand.
It was the United States struggling in Trinidad and Tobago this time around and hoping for Mexico to at least manage a tie against Honduras.
Mexico fought hard in San Pedro Sula and chased an equalizer until the very last minute, but it didn't come and the United States crashed out of World Cup qualifying. It is a historic event likely to send shockwaves through the game north of the border.
Mexico, on the other hand, finished the Hexagonal five points clear in first place.
Did the last few days make it clear that there is lots to do ahead of the World Cup for Mexico? Sure, but you don't have to stray too far to see what real failure looks like. And Mexico flirted with the same disaster as recently as four years ago.
Honduras loss blow to confidence
It's an exaggeration to say there was an air of invincibility about this Mexico team, but certainly El Tri's swagger around the CONCACAF region was returning. For example, when Trinidad and Tobago took the lead in the second half last Friday, El Tri responded like it was an affront to their dignity and piled on the attacking force to take a 3-1 victory.
Looking further back, the win in Columbus, Ohio, against the United States really set the tone for qualifying and gave Mexico its impulse and confidence following a summer in which it had been battered 7-0 by Chile.
So when Mexico went up on Honduras twice in the first half on Tuesday, it was assumed that El Tri would be able to see out the game. There was a certain amount of confidence there, breed partly perhaps of Mexico's fine defensive record -- El Tri had only conceded four goals in nine Hex games.
As it was, Honduras reacted in the second half and Mexico became paralyzed in the humid conditions.
Falling at the final hurdle in Mexico's last competitive game ahead of the World Cup wasn't part of Osorio's plan and immediately the criticism about rotations and players playing out of position began.
Hector Moreno more important than ever
The match in Honduras was a reminder of just how crucial Roma's Hector Moreno is for El Tri. His absence through suspension left a gap in terms of leadership and quality in the defense.
Left-footed deputy Oswaldo Alanis is a solid Liga MX player but is perhaps still low on confidence following his poor display against Germany in the Confederations Cup.
The other two center-backs in Osorio's 3-1-4-2 formation, Hugo Ayala and Nestor Araujo, also suffered, with all three of Honduras' goals coming from some shoddy defending, rather than brilliance from the opposition.
And last Friday -- admittedly with Moreno present -- the goal Mexico conceded against Trinidad and Tobago came through a long ball, from which Levi Garcia beat Carlos Salcedo to a flick-on and then Shahdon Winchester ghosted past Diego Reyes to finish.
Moreno can't solve every issue, but he has a decent understanding with Araujo and that should be developed further between now and the World Cup. Worryingly, minutes at Roma have proven difficult to come by so far this season for Moreno.
Room for changes in Osorio's squad selection
With qualifying now out the way, the race for places at the World Cup is on. Osorio has stated on more than one occasion in recent days that he has a group of 35 names and that his coaching staff has prepared individualized programs for each one ahead of the World Cup.
The details are sketchy, but it gives you an idea of Osorio's thought process and signals that there is still room for maneuvering.
The losers from recent games were Giovani dos Santos, Alanis, Reyes, Salcedo, Ayala, Jesus Gallardo, Jonathan dos Santos and Javier Aquino, while it was slightly perplexing that Erick Gutierrez and Elias Hernandez didn't see playing time in either game.
Chivas duo Rodolfo Pizarro and Orbelin Pineda -- if he can regain form -- could get a shot in November, as could Belgium-based Omar Govea when El Tri face Belgium and Poland in Europe.
Midfield experiments still not working
Osorio has tried to strike a balance in the midfield ever since taking charge, but still doesn't seem convinced by the options at his disposal. The Colombian made half-time changes in each of the recent qualifiers.
Against Trinidad and Tobago, he changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4 formation at the break, pushing Giovani dos Santos (and then his replacement Carlos Vela) further upfield and leaving Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera as the two central midfielders.
And versus Honduras, Jonathan dos Santos came off at half-time to be replaced by teenager Edson Alvarez, with Herrera pushing forward and the youngster occupying the more defensive role.
Osorio had license to experiment in these games, but doesn't appear to be closer to a real solution.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.