World Cup spots up for grabs as Mexico prepares to face B&H
SAN ANTONIO -- The U.S. men's national team's 0-0 tie on Sunday against Bosnia & Herzegovina wasn't one to get pulses racing.
But when Mexico takes on the same opposition in the Alamodome on Wednesday, there's a huge contextual difference: A World Cup is looming this summer for El Tri.
The players are very aware and El Tri's Liga MX-based squad (plus MLS players Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos and Carlos Vela) needs no reminding of the stakes, even for what is a low-key intro to 2018 for the Mexican national team on paper.
"I think all of us have a chance," Club America striker Henry Martin said on arrival in San Antonio. "We know that whoever does well can be there [at Russia 2018].
"In the last six months we know lots of cases of players that sneak in in the end and we have to take advantage."
The example of Andres Guardado's rise from teenage prospect to starter in the Round of 16 clash against Argentina in 2006 is the path to emulate for the likes of Martin, Gibran Lajud, Jonathan Orozco, Jorge Hernandez, Jonathan Gonzalez and others.
Added Martin: "We know that [coach] Juan Carlos [Osorio] is open to playing and watching everyone, and it's great that a coach is looking despite there only being six months left ... It gives you more confidence to come and try to show everyone that you can get to the World Cup."
Time is running out, however, with at least half of this squad unlikely to be in the March friendlies or the pre-World Cup camp in late May.
"For all of us, including the Europe-based players, there's a lot at stake," emphasized Pachuca midfielder Jorge Daniel "Burrito" Hernandez inside the airport. "We all want to go to the World Cup, it's the same in this squad, so the competition is always there and it should be healthy to put together the best national team."
None of the fringe players will be able to definitively book a trip to Russia 2018 on Wednesday, but the idea has to be to plant a seed in Osorio's head and get the Colombian thinking. Osorio's history should tell the players that he's willing to give opportunities where other coaches might not if he sees an attribute that fits his philosophy.
But it's not just competition for places that will be of interest in Wednesday's friendly against an inexperienced Bosnia side, led by Croatia legend Robert Prosinecki.
Osorio has actually learned a lot from these so-called "molero" (or "money-grabbing") friendlies in the United States. The former Atletico Nacional coach attributes the blossoming of players like Nestor Araujo, Carlos Salcedo, Hirving Lozano and Jesus Gallardo in part to these games, in which Mexico can experiment, particularly with formations and using players in different positions.
This time last year Osorio used a 3-4-3 against Iceland in Las Vegas, a formation which remains an option moving forward with Jurgen Damm and Gallardo the wide midfielders. Salcedo boosted his claims at right-back in friendlies before moving to Europe, while Araujo has grown in his time working under Osorio. Edson Alvarez stepped up this time last year in Las Vegas.
What will it be this time?
With Alan Pulido out injured, perhaps Osorio will opt for a slightly different concept up front, especially with Javier Hernandez and Raul Jimenez not guaranteed regular minutes for their clubs between now and the World Cup.
Could someone like Carlos Vela play as a false nine? Or even Rodolfo Pizarro? With Martin the only recognized No. 9 now on this 22-player squad, it shouldn't be ruled out.
In terms of other questions, Osorio might want to find out whether Alvarez fits the bill in the holding midfield role, if debutant Gonzalez is as effective a little bit further forward in midfield than he is used to at Monterrey, whether Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez is a solution at right-back and if the MLS-based players have been as working hard in their break as has been reported.
With Russia 2018 approaching, there is no shortage of angles and intrigue when it comes to Mexico's opening game of the year.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.