Wednesday night’s friendly result against Chile wasn’t the one that either Mexico fans or El Tri manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino wanted.
Moments away from securing a win over the South American side at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, Mexico let the victory slip away when opposing midfielder Pablo Parra found the back of the net in the 86th minute. With little time to respond, Mexico slumped to an underwhelming 2-2 draw to close out the year.
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The result was their fourth in a row in all competitions without a win. It also followed two high-profile losses to the United States and Canada in World Cup qualifiers last month. Coupled with the absence of a CONCACAF Nations League title or a Gold Cup trophy in 2021 (both defeats at the hands of the U.S.), a weary Martino stated during Wednesday’s post-game new conference that this was “the worst year of my management” with El Tri.
“My review of this year is that its been the worst for my management, the worst year that I am here, that’s how I see it and thats what the results tell us,” Martino said.
While pressure will only continue to build for the coach who is receiving more criticism from media and Mexico supporters, it is important to recognize that silver-linings emerged from the Wednesday’s game.
In fact, perhaps even a few solutions for some of El Tri‘s problems were on display.
Mexico’s roster call-up for the friendly — which landed on a non-FIFA date — had a total of 11 players who had yet to make their senior national team debut before the match. The average age of the starting XI was 23.5, and within that XI, four (Salvador Reyes, Luis Olivas, Julian Araujo and Carlos Acevedo) were making their debut. By the time the match was over, three more players (Israel Reyes, Mauro Lainez and Marcelo Flores) had also made their senior debuts.
In short: This was a young and experimental roster. During a situation like this, the scoreline wasn’t as significant as the individual performances, and luckily for Martino, a few did step up.
Up top, Cruz Azul striker Santiago Gimenez was threatening with his runs and with his goal in the 9th minute that quickly put Mexico up 1-0. Were it not for some excellent stops from Chilean goalkeeper Sebastian Perez, Gimenez could have easily finished with another.
Either way, the friendly will easily help the stock of the sturdy 20-year-old who can resolve Mexico’s backup striker dilemma. Following an unfortunate injury to starter Raul Jimenez that left him out of the national team picture for most of 2021, El Tri struggled to find a suitable replacement. Although Jimenez is now back in, a busy 2022 will force Martino to consider alternatives through several matches next year. Gimenez still has more to prove before cementing that backup spot, but Wednesday undoubtedly helped his case.
The same goes for Acevedo, Mexico’s goalkeeper of the night.
Needing just three minutes to make an impact, the acrobatic Santos Laguna captain took flight in the early stages of the friendly and denied a clear goalscoring chance for Chile’s Benjamin Kuscevic. No matter the two goals that eventually went past him, Acevedo was commanding in his area of the box that dealt with 16 shots.
“I need to work, I need to be humble, I need to have my feet on the ground,” said Acevedo to TUDN after the match. “Obviously I’m going to work hard so I can be here again.”
One could be forgiven for thinking of Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s top goalkeeper, when watching the 25-year-old Acevedo. Along with an obvious shared interest in headbands and long hair, Acevedo and Ochoa both have incredibly quick reflexes and plenty of leadership on the pitch.
And despite the fact that the starting spot should remain in the hands of Ochoa in the near future, Acevedo can help as a promising backup that is capable of outshining a number of aging goalkeepers for Mexico that tend to be in their mid-to-late 30s.
All that said, what was truly the biggest silver-lining for Mexico on Wednesday was a Man of The Match-like performance from LA Galaxy’s Araujo. In a right-back position that is widely perceived as Mexico’s weak-link, the aggressive and pacey defender helped create plays, win back possession and halt attacking efforts from Chile.
There was a confidence that Araujo exuded that no other player on the pitch had. Looking forward, it isn’t outlandish to assume that he could have more than just a supporting role in 2022.
With the knowledge that Mexico is lacking reliable right-backs, and that current starter Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez is losing some of his speed and defensive abilities, Araujo will be sure to get more opportunities to shine next year. As a dual-national, this may have also influenced his decision in October to switch to Mexico after making one appearance for the USMNT.
There’s promise there for Martino with these aforementioned names and also other recent call-ups who have high ceilings.
Flores, who is currently a part of Arsenal’s academy, is especially exciting and someone who has the talents to become a genuine world-class player. Erik Lira had a decent showing in the friendly and was a key reason why Mexico hit the ground running in an energetic role during the 2nd half. Sebastian Cordova shook off a hesitant start and developed into an influential difference-maker in the game.
For Flores — who joins Jonathan dos Santos and Carlos Vela as notable players to play for Mexico before a senior club debut — Martino was especially poignant.
“I understand the expectations that can create but I ask for prudence with the demands of an 18-year-old,” Martino said.
However, we also shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and assume any of these of promising talents will magically fix everything after a difficult end to 2021.
Specifically, an area of the pitch in which Mexico has had issues with is in the heart of the defense. While Jordan Silva should be praised for the goal he scored for Mexico in the 64th minute of the draw, he and Olivas were constantly caught off-guard as the two central defenders.
For Martino, issues within the backline are nothing new.
“We played two friendlies against Ecuador [in November] and tonight. Two qualifiers [against the U.S. and Canada] and nine goals scored against us in those four games with different defenses,” Martino said. “Evidently our objective and challenge is to find a defense that lives up to how we attack.”
Finding that right balance not only in the backline, but also in other areas of the pitch will be vital for Martino before a final sprint towards the World Cup in Qatar. With a current place at third in CONCACACAF’s Octagonal round of World Cup qualifying, Mexico have given themselves a slightly precarious path in a format that only gives automatic spots to Qatar for the top three.
It isn’t the most ideal position to be in, and it obviously hasn’t been an ideal end to 2021 for Martino, but he can take solace in knowing that he now has more intriguing options to explore within his player pool.
Whether he selects those players or not is an entirely different topic.