Mexico's World Cup team, Osorio's tactics taking shape despite fan ire
MEXICO CITY -- Boos intermingling with chants of "Osorio out." That was how El Tri concluded the first phase of World Cup preparation as the final whistle blew in Saturday evening's friendly against Scotland at Estadio Azteca.
Somebody entering the stadium during the last 10 minutes without knowing the score would have thought Mexico were losing 3-0 and the players had caved in, weren't playing for manager Juan Carlos Osorio and that everything at the upcoming World Cup points to doom for them. Some fans even shouted angrily down from the steep bleachers inside the famous stadium.
"Get your act together!" screamed one. "You're an embarrassment!" yelled another.
However, Mexico actually defeated Scotland 1-0 in a game it dominated according to almost every metric you could care to use, except the narrow score line.
Those same fans calling (once again) for Osorio's exit will watch El Tri at the World Cup. And should Osorio guide Mexico to a "quinto partido" (quarterfinal), the Colombian will return to the country as a hero. Even if he doesn't, perhaps a few years down the line his reign will be judged more kindly than with the barrage of criticism it currently receives.
A lot of that quick rush to judgement is the nature of sports fandom, although the intensity of expectation with the Mexican national team does go beyond the usual rationale of most sides. It almost feels at times like going to watch El Tri at Estadio Azteca has elements of going to see lucha libre (Mexican wrestling). The fans want and demand to be entertained, seeing the "tecnicos" (seen as the clean, good guys) humiliate the "rudos" (the cheats and bad guys).
Like in lucha libre, the fans become part of the show. That includes shouting "Ole!" to accompany the Mexican team's passes as early as the second minute, and booing loudly at the end when El Tri doesn't entertain or live up to expectations.
But here's the thing that all the booing covers up: There is every reason to think Mexico is in better shape for Russia 2018 than El Tri was four years ago at Brazil 2014, or even eight years ago at South Africa 2010. Osorio has the players on his side, has worked with the group since November 2015, has a defined style and boasts a bunch of key players in the prime of their careers.
This is also the first time in history that El Tri has a squad with a majority of players from teams outside of Mexico, lending it a more cosmopolitan feel that should help at the World Cup.
Since Osorio took charge of the team in November 2015, Mexico has played 47 games, winning 31, drawing nine and losing seven. His win rate is 66 percent, hardly a record that merits dismissal less than two weeks before a World Cup, which is presumably what fans were calling for Saturday.
Of course, that doesn't mean issues don't remain as Mexico heads to Copenhagen on Sunday evening to prepare for Saturday's final World Cup tuneup against Denmark. The injury forcing Nestor Araujo out of the squad was a major blow, and coupled with the concern about Diego Reyes' ongoing battle to recover from a hamstring injury, the plan Osorio originally had for the opening game on June 17 against Germany has changed.
Osorio may well still be undecided about how to confront Germany. Does Reyes play center-back or holding midfield if he is fit? If he isn't, is Carlos Salcedo better employed at center-back? And if that is the case, can you risk Edson Alvarez at right-back or even in the holding role? Can Carlos Vela, Hirving Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona all be on the field at the same time?
Those types of issues are the reason for much of the experimentation in Mexico's 0-0 draw against Wales and the victory over Scotland, and Osorio made a not-so-subtle hint at what Germany, who lost 2-1 to Austria on Saturday, does right and perhaps Mexico gets wrong.
"Over there [in Germany] they appreciate processes and they aren't uncomfortable with giving opportunities to youngsters or [using] other systems," said Osorio in the postgame news conference. "They will make their conclusions and they'll have a very tough team [in the World Cup]."
Osorio wanted to find conclusions to questions he had in these recent games, and the only real concern about this first stage of preparation (aside from the injuries) is that Mexico's forwards passed up opportunities to net a few goals and head to Europe with an added boost of confidence.
El Tri leaves behind a polarized fan base back in Mexico but goes to Denmark with reason to be confident.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.