Eriksson learns Mexico's problems
Mexican national team limps as final round of World Cup qualifying is set to begin
Under Sven-Göran Eriksson, Mexico hasn't won in 4 games and looks uninspired
Banged up and missing players, Mexico takes on the U.S. in Columbus on Feb. 11
Somewhere, Hugo Sánchez is smiling. The former Mexican national-team coach probably isn't enthused watching El Tricolor in its current beleaguered state. But Sánchez, now in charge of Spanish side Almería, can rest assured over one thing: The problems with El Tri run deeper than the coach.
There are less than two weeks to go until Mexico's first match in CONCACAF's final Hexagonal round of 2010 World Cup qualifying: a harrowing trip to Columbus, Ohio, to face the U.S. And already, Mexico is threatening to spiral out of control.
Wednesday's 1-0 friendly loss to Sweden in Oakland, Calif., only reaffirms the doubts about the team itself due to poor execution and results. Mexico dropped two of its last three qualifiers and failed to win away from home during the semifinal phase of qualifying a year ago. The team's lack of creativity and penchant for mistakes are as strong as ever, and without some talented and experienced players available for the U.S. game, all the pieces are in place for a spectacular implosion.
Still, the one area where El Tri isn't lacking apparently is confidence. While it may not seem that way to many observers, Mexico coach Sven-Göran Eriksson said his team has improved when playing road games.
Under the Swede, El Tri has just one win in six tries outside of Mexico. Three away qualifiers yielded one point and two shutout losses, while three friendlies on U.S. soil netted a pair of 1-0 losses and a 2-1 win over Ecuador.
"I think we are making progress every time we play away," Eriksson said after the Sweden loss. "We played at Jamaica a month ago. That was awful. We didn't try to play football. I don't think we tried to attack the open ends. We were just standing there like a boxer. They punched us. But for every game after that, we are doing better and better. I'm sure we are going to give the United States a great game."
Still, Eriksson is learning what Sánchez learned before him: Mexico is devoid of a superstar, a player who can instantly rally the troops with his leadership and skill and can take over a match at the drop of a hat. Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Jared Borgetti fit that mold for several years, but towards the end of the Sánchez era, they couldn't perform any longer to the levels they set for themselves.
Also, Mexico lacks options in the attack. Sánchez also realized that when he called in foreign-born players Antonio "Zinha" Naelson and Guillermo Franco, both of whom drew his ire when the pair was called up by his predecessor, Ricardo Lavolpe.
Two players who many have pegged as future national-team stars likely will have no role in the U.S. match, and how much they figure into the Hexagonal in general remains to be seen. Former Under-17 starlets Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela gave hope they would develop into world-class players, but that hasn't happened yet.
Vela is unavailable because of a foolish red card he picked up near the end of Mexico's 1-0 qualifying loss to Honduras in November. Dos Santos, meanwhile, is nowhere near the form necessary to compete in World Cup qualifying, and Eriksson seemed doubtful whether he'd even call on the youngster at all.
"Of course I would pick him," Eriksson said. "He's a great player. He's 19 years old, but he's very good. And we need that kind of players. I was speaking to him and his manager. He's having a difficult time. He's not playing very much so I don't know exactly what has happened. There have been talks about changing clubs at the end of the season. It's important for us that he starts to play football. Otherwise it is very difficult to pick him and, for a football education at 19, 20 years old, you have to play."
Dos Santos or not, Mexico will have to maximize its attacking options. Goals haven't been at a premium under Eriksson as El Tri has scored more than two goals just once, in a 3-0 victory over Jamaica last September. Ironically, though, at least two of the scorers from that game have no chance of playing against the U.S. Injured Andrés Guardado has been ruled out while Fernando Arce is suspended for the match, along with Vela and Gerardo Torrado.
Defender Jonny Magallón, who scored twice against the U.S. in a friendly last February in Houston, hasn't played since October due to injury and, although he's recovering, quickly seems in doubt to earn a call-up and playing time for the game.
Mexico's problems seem vast, but what compounds the issue even more is its opponent: It hasn't beaten the U.S. on American soil in a decade. Worse, Mexico hasn't won a road qualifier against the U.S. since 1972.
Still, the Eriksson is confident that Mexico can come away with a victory. "I think we are doing better and better in every away game," he said. "The attitude is better. We fight better, we create more and more occasions. So someday it will happen."
Additional reporting by Jonah Freedman