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MEADOWLANDS, N.J. – Asked about his upcoming showdown with the United States men’s national team, Juan Carlos Osorio, the Colombian-born but American-educated Mexico manager, did not look worried. Then again, the studious coach never really looks worried.
And at this point, why should he be? Under his watch, El Tri hasn’t lost a competitive game in almost a year. It’s the only undefeated team in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and, needless to say, in first place. By a long stretch. Halfway through the hexagonal round, El Tri has built a commanding five-point lead by conceding just one goal in five games.
Thursday’s straightforward 3-0 win over Honduras at the Estadio Azteca – a team that had often given the Mexicans trouble at home – consolidated the lead in qualifying and further build momentum.
In November, Mexico even got a whole family of monkeys off its back by finally beating the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio. And it takes heart from the knowledge that it has never lost a home qualifier to the Yanks – and had to settle for a tie just twice.
Osorio schooled U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann in the last game, ruthlessly pouncing on the rudimentary three-man back line the German had suddenly deployed – to the surprise of even his own players – either in a fit of panic or an ill-fated attempt to be clever. Soon enough, Klinsmann was gone. And Osorio is still here, the rare modern Mexico manager to survive longer than a year – he’s 20 months in already – in spite of dropping his lone competitive loss 7-0 to Chile in the Copa America Centenario quarterfinals.
So when the U.S. game is brought up an hour after the Mexicans surgically dismantled Ireland 3-1 here on June 1, Osorio said he hoped to build on the form from the two friendlies – the other was a surprising 2-1 loss to a second-rate Croatia team, just Osorio’s second defeat in his time in charge.
“Hopefully they can repeat both performances against Honduras and the United States,” he said. “Overall, both games have been very good for us.”
But what did he expect of Sunday’s U.S. game in the constricting air of the Estadio Azteca?
To answer that, Osorio gave a scouting report of the opposition, as if to demonstrate that he knew exactly what awaited him and to say that he could not possibly be surprised.
“Mr. Arena has been very well known using the 4-4-2,” Osorio began, referring to his American counterpart Bruce Arena. “That doesn’t mean he will not change. We will expect something similar. With two central midfielders who try to control the game, two wide players that are very athletic going forward and defending as well, and two center forwards who are very good in the air.”
Osorio wasn’t done. “[John] Brooks and [Geoff] Cameron playing as central defenders will also be a threat in the air,” he said. “The set pieces will once again be very important for us and for them.” It was on a set piece that Mexico finally beat the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier on American soil, by the way.
The Colombian is a man of meticulous preparation, one who dutifully walked an awfully long path to get where he is today and who projects steadfast confidence in his methods – outwardly, at least.
And justifiably so. The truth is that Mexico’s form, talent pool, depth and recent track record – three Gold Cup victories in four editions and an Olympic gold medal in 2012 – comfortably exceed that of the United States. As such, El Tri is the best team of the Western Hemisphere north of the Equator. And possibly north of Brazil.
Whereas four years ago, it was Mexico that needed help from the USA just to squeeze into the World Cup as its campaign teetered from one crisis into another, the tables have been turned. Only a calamitous collapse can keep El Tri out of the 2018 World Cup. And while the Americans are in better shape than they were in the fall, things still aren’t rosy, teetering just above the playoff spot.
Presently, Mexico soars, while Arena had to be brought in just to try to make enough short-term fixes to at least reach the World Cup.
Whereas Mexico’s core is inarguably in its prime and playing beautiful and dominant soccer in Osorio’s fluid system, the Americans seem caught between generations and are hamstrung by an unshakable inconsistency. They rely increasingly on an 18-year-old, Christian Pulisic, who has yet to let his team down but whose age suggests that he won’t always be able to be relied upon.
It’s fairly telling that the criticisms of Osorio – because in the Mexican press, there is a compulsive need for searing scrutiny of the national team manager – are limited to the fact that he isn’t Mexican and that he rotates his players. The former charge is idiotic, xenophobic and out of Osorio’s control – which reasonable observers acknowledge. To the latter, he answers that he has a lot of good players and that it makes sense to get them all minutes, to keep them sharp and involved in case he needs them.
The issues afflicting the U.S. program are far greater in number. And Osorio seems to have his finger on all of them. Or at least he believes that he does.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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