The Battle for SoCal: CONCACAF Champions League
1. Miguel Herrera places his fringe players in a position to succeed… : Herrera revealed his plans to experiment by posting his starting XI on Twitter Tuesday night. The sage decision to blend core players (Rafa Márquez, Carlos Peña and Oribe Peralta) with fresh faces (Rodolfo Pizarro, Alan Pulido and José Juan Vázquez) offered a timely chance to rifle through the deeper end of the squad and sift through potential options.
2. … and they did about as well as expected: Korea Republic posed problems with its industry and its willingness to operate at a high tempo. Mexico coped with those concerns with some proficiency and eventually placed the Koreans under pressure by using the wide areas. The balance of the game allowed some players to impress. Miguel Ponce capped his impressive 45-minute audition at left wing by supplying a teasing cross for Oribe Peralta’s well-taken opener. Pulido smashed home from close range in first half stoppage time to mark his debut with a goal and then struck twice more in the late stages to grab his hat trick. Most of the other contenders clamoring for a place in the plans adjusted well enough to the demands of the game without bolstering or harming their chances.
3. Carlos Peña remains the integral piece in midfield: Peña once again drove El Tri toward goal during his first-half appearance. His driving runs attract the opposition and create lanes for others to exploit. The León man doesn’t always hit the perfect pass, but he more than makes up for it by marauding into the opposing penalty area and neatly switching the point of attack. If only the other choices in midfield — Isaac Brizuela in an unfamiliar central role (though his run on the third goal was sublime), then usual partner Luis Montes after the interval — could meet the standard he sets.
4. Where does Diego Reyes fit in the pecking order?: Reyes muddled through this assignment with the proficiency expected of a player lacking match practice. He handled his duties well enough on the night, but he often showed his rust at inopportune junctures. Herrera wisely left him on the field for the full 90 minutes to hone his sharpness a bit. Reyes even assumed the armband from Márquez during the second half. At this point, it looks like Reyes will find his way into the squad. Whether he can carve out a place in the starting XI likely hinges on his ability to force his way into the reckoning at Porto during the second half of the season.
5. Set piece defending remains a significant concern: Korea Republic spurned two glorious chances to take the lead. Both of the opportunities came from poor marking on set pieces. Korea’s profligacy mirrored its lack of incisiveness and underscored El Tri’s lingering concerns about attentiveness in dead ball situations. Herrera must sort out the problem in short order to avoid potentially drastic consequences in tighter matches at the World Cup.
Mexico interim boss Miguel Herrera possesses exactly one friendly to build a cohesive unit and install his preferred 5-3-2 formation prior to the World Cup playoff with New Zealand next month.
His best idea to further both of those goals: lean on the players he knows to help espouse the principles he wants to implement.
Herrera named 10 América players in his 22-man squad for the match against Finland on Oct. 30. Those established players will offer guidance to the remaining 12 – including a mix of some veterans and some fresh faces pluck from throughout Liga MX – as Herrera attempts to assess his options now and construct his squad for the opening leg against the All Whites on Nov. 13 later.
Goalkeepers: Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), Moisés Muñoz (América)
Consider this choice as a litmus test for the extent of América’s influence in the side. Corona probably deserves the first glance here based upon his displays for José Manuel de la Torre earlier in the year, but Muñoz possesses the faith and the trust of the manager at club level.
Defenders: Paul Aguilar (América), Adrián Aldrete (América), Edwin Hernández (León), Miguel Herrera (Pachuca), Miguel Layún (América), Rafael Márquez (León), Hiram Mier (Monterrey), Francisco Rodríguez (América), Rodrigo Salinas (Morelia), Juan Carlos Valenzuela (América)
Herrera named five centerback specialists to comprise the three-man bedrock of his back line. Seasoned operators Márquez (in the middle, for now) and Rodríguez (on the right side of the three) likely hold the inside track to two of those spots. It simply doesn’t make sense to include them in the setup if they aren’t expected to play. Their potential inclusion places a premium on pace to complete the central defensive trio. Aldrete (the interloper) and Valenzuela (the regular choice and the potential favorite to plug this spot until Héctor Moreno is included) split time in the remaining vacancy on the left side of the three for América. Miguel Herrera and Mier present right-sided alternatives.
On a night that will go down as one of the most remarkable and entertaining in CONCACAF history, Mexico found themselves on the brink of World Cup elimination before getting bailed out by their biggest rivals, the United States. Twice.
And US Soccer’s official Twitter account couldn’t help but rub it in.
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer)
They didn’t know that, once again, the USA had just scored — not once, but twice, both in the final minutes of stoppage time — to seal a stunning comeback win that rescued their bitter rivals and send them into a home-and-home playoff tie against New Zealand.
This ironic twist of fate inspired the US twitter account to take some shots at El Tri:
Mexico spared through no real effort of their own. Now a chance to snag some frequent flier miles before the holidays with a trip to NZL!— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer)
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer)
Whether or not Mexicans will take these tweets personally, it’s not like they can have legitimate beef. The simple truth is, without the United States’ help, Mexico would be sitting at home during a World Cup for the first time since 1990, when they were banned by FIFA.
Clearly, Costa Ricans love hosting World Cup qualifiers.
A month after welcoming the United States with a hostile reception at the airport, fans of Los Ticos gave Mexico a similarly friendly greeting.
Mocking El Tri for their grave position in World Cup qualifying with one match to go — if they are to lose to Costa Rica on Tuesday night coupled with a Panamia victory against the United States over two goals, Mexico will most likely be eliminated — a small group of fans rolled up to the airport with a coffin draped in Mexico’s colors propped up on a pickup truck. Inside the coffin: a skeleton wearing a Mexico kit.
The message is pretty easy to decipher:
A tortured Hexagonal road comes down to this one match for Mexico: a point or better in Costa Rica tonight guarantees the quest for a berth at next summer’s World Cup to continue for at least a few more weeks.
Mexico will expect to claim the draw required to secure a playoff with New Zealand next month and perhaps even snatch the victory necessary to apply pressure on Honduras, who travel to Jamaica. El Tri enjoys a fine record in Costa Rica (three consecutive victories in World Cup qualifiers), while the hosts possess little incentive to perform with their place in Brazil already booked.
Costa Rica will still attempt to spoil Mexico’s fun, though. It is a threat the visitors must take seriously. At this stage of the proceedings, there isn’t any room for error. El Tri must heed these fundamental tenets in order to avoid the ultimate failure by the end of Tuesday night.
1. Weigh any personnel changes carefully: Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich tailors his tactics to fit the situation at hand. He chose a 4-4-2 formation for the 2-1 victory against Panama on Friday, but he could opt for another setup – perhaps by dropping a striker and inserting a central midfielder to counter the Ticos’ usual 5-3-2 alignment – to reinforce the defensive structure away from home. The tinkering comes with a caveat, though: any potential alterations – even the prospect of keeping the 4-4-2 and replacing Javier Hernández with Raúl Jiménez in a nod to popular sentiment – could disrupt the fragile progress made during the early stages of the new regime.
2. Focus on the task at hand: Mexico controls its destiny: a draw in Costa Rica clinches a two-legged tie against the All Whites next month. Nothing else – not the United States’ visit to Panama and the help it could lend, nor the Honduras-Jamaica game and the potential bounty it could reap – matters. Any distractions from the instant duties within their direct purview could prove very, very costly indeed.
3. Remember the circumstances: Composure and concentration represent the pillars of a successful performance in these fraught conditions. Even a momentary drop can lead to chaos, particularly with Costa Rica’s ability to pose problems on the break and from set pieces. Mexico must maintain the proper application for the duration of the affair – again, a lingering problem for this group that almost dashed any hopes of a World Cup place on Friday – to avoid disaster.
Ticos fans are relishing the chance to ruin Mexico’s World Cup hopes.
The single table formats in North and South America create a more straightforward final day of World Cup qualifying. There are some permutations to ponder and some weird scenarios — but the final standings reveal the pecking order rather quickly.
Most of the uncertainty surrounds the final berths in both confederations. Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay will fight it out for the two remaining confirmed berths and the playoff place in South America; Honduras, Mexico and Panama must sort out the last direct spot and the sole playoff berth in North America.
Here is a look at the circumstances on both continents heading into the final day:
Qualified: Argentina, Colombia
Assured of a playoff place or better: Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay
Eliminated: Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela
Chile and Ecuador enter the final day with the inside track to secure the two remaining direct berths into the World Cup. A draw between the two sides in Santiago will send both of them through to Brazil. Uruguay must defeat Argentina in Montevideo and hope either Chile or Ecuador prevails comprehensively in order to climb into the top four. Otherwise, a playoff with Jordan beckons next month.
Qualified: Costa Rica, United States
Assured of a playoff place or better: Honduras
Honduras can guarantee the final confirmed ticket to next summer’s World Cup with a point against already-eliminated Jamaica in Kingston. Mexico stands to benefit if Honduras fails to secure the desired result at the Office. El Tri can climb into the top three with a Honduran setback and a two-goal victory over the Ticos, but a point will suffice to arrange a playoff with New Zealand next month. Panama must defeat the United States in Panama City and pray for a Costa Rica win in San Jose in order to grab the playoff berth and knock out the Mexicans.
Image courtesy of Mexsport Sports Agency
Mexico needed a goal five minutes desperately from time to break the 1-1 stalemate with Panama. There were a million reasons for Raúl Jiménez to try something more practical when Fernando Arce played a diagonal ball into his feet.
And yet, Jimenez didn’t and all of Mexico will thank him for it.
Jimenez drifted into a yard of space at the edge of the penalty area. A clever touch, a deft turn and a stunning shot that injected life into Mexico’s World Cup plans.
Arce’s pass skipped off the surface en route and stripped away the preferred option. The ball approached Jiménez awkwardly, forcing him into a bad touch and presenting him with an gamble previously too audacious to consider.
Jiménez popped the ball up into the air. It ascended into the night sky seemingly in slow motion. He watched it climb with two Panamanian defenders at close attention. And then he summoned the courage to take the only remaining course of action.
Image courtesy of Mexsport Sports Agency
As the ball peaked, Jiménez hurled himself into the air majestically and lashed his right boot toward the ball. The bicycle kick constitutes a desperate effort from this sort of distance, a last resort of strikers with no other alternatives. There is no room for error in the execution. The entire sequence — ball, leap and strike — must come off perfectly in order to give it a chance to succeed.
Jiménez did his part. He connected purely, swinging through with menace and precision. The ball jumped off his foot with the direction and the pace to freeze Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo in place.
Fate did the rest. Jiménez’s perfect confluence of movements carried the ball inside the near post and sparked the sort of celebrations only genuine salvation can bring. Jiménez peeled off toward the right side of the penalty area and reveled in what he had done with his teammates.
The appreciation will continue for some time to come given the magnitude of the 2-1 victory and the quality of the goal. Jiménez rescued Mexico on the night and sustained El Tri’s World Cup hopes for another few days. And he did it because he aspired toward brilliance and delivered in the most compelling way possible.