SAN LUIS POTOSI, Mexico — What could’ve been a rough night for the Mexico national team turned into one to celebrate Friday.
The team was able to keep its hopes of an undefeated run through the Hex alive, rallying to beat Trinidad and Tobago 3-1. In many ways, it was the same story we’ve seen throughout much of qualification with coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s teams. Mexico started strong, then hit a period where it didn’t seem to be connecting. Then, behind a furious late run, it ended up with a scoreline that maybe did reflect Mexico’s performance on the day, even if the worry that came with the thought of losing to the worst team left in qualification didn’t translate.
Let’s take a look at five things we can take away from El Tri’s penultimate qualifier.
Emotional ceremony contributes to stirring atmosphere
September was a difficult month for the country of Mexico with multiple earthquakes causing devastation across a number of states. The special pre-match ceremony hit the right notes paying tribute to the victims of those natural disasters. Mexico’s Marine band played traditional song “Cielito Lindo” before the players came out and once the sides entered the pitch they went to the center circle. First the anthems were observed, with fans applauding the visiting team’s song then belting out their own himno nacional. Next, some of the Mexico national team stars gave their shirts to emergency crews who responded to affected areas after the earthquakes, with famous rescue dog Frida among the workers honored on the pitch. The teams closed out by taking a photo together with the referees behind the #FuerzaMexico sign.
It all set the stage for a great night at the Estadio Alfonso Lastras. Fans in San Luis Potosi clearly were thrilled to see the national team in their city for the first time since 2007 and did their part to help their team.
“The experience was very positive. I want to take this chance to thank all the fans in San Luis, not only for the reception but also for the support in the game,” Osorio said in his postmatch news conference. “I think it was felt during the 90 minutes and without doubt was one of the reasons why the team also was able to have this comeback and increase its intensity, feeling the support of their fans. So, it was very positive in all aspects.”
Well, not all aspects. Fans in one end of the stadium tossed items at Shahdon Winchester and his teammates celebrating after the first goal. And while the post-goal kick shout the Mexican federation is working to eradicate mostly was replaced, it still could be heard at times when things weren’t going Mexico’s way.
Overall, though, the night was one that will stick in the memory of those who were there not only for the soccer on display but for the well-planned prematch ceremony that helped a country continuing to mourn remember those sons and daughters it has lost.
Lozano becoming true star
When El Tri’s substitutes started to warm up after the halftime break, there was no doubt who fans wanted to see. “Ole, ole, ole, ole! Chucky! Chucky!” they sang. Their wish was granted shortly after by Osorio, who brought Hirving “Chucky” Lozano into the contest in the 56th minute.
What they probably didn’t expect was Lozano to end the match playing at right back, but his attacking contributions came through with an equalizer. Lozano moved inside and was able to connect with Miguel Layun’s ball across the box by putting his body at an atypical angle.
“I think there are very few national teams who can change like we can. That’s to say, putting a left winger like Hirving Lozano to play right back, basically the totally opposite position,” Osorio said.
Don’t expect to see Lozano there too often. As he showed with his goal Friday and his sensational form in Europe with PSV, Lozano knows how to score at a high level. Javier Aquino’s inclusion in the starting lineup kept “El Chucky” on the bench for this game, but when games against stronger opponents come, it will be Lozano getting the nod.
Fans are noticing his rise as well. While it may be difficult for a soft-spoken family man like Lozano to break through in the commercial market like Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez or Guillermo Ochoa have, the fans’ songs for the 21-year-old hint that he’s becoming a beloved member of El Tri.
Layun with mixed return
After missing out on September’s matches while he sought to leave Porto, Miguel Layun was right back into the starting lineup for Osorio. The left back had a decent day, sending across a powerful square ball for Lozano’s opening goal
He also showed a bit of the rust that may be accumulating while he’s not seeing regular minutes with Porto. The Soca Warriors’ first chance of the game came in the eighth minute when Layun botched his first touch. That allowed Winchester to get off and running.
Layun knows he’ll need to be in rhythm for Mexico. As the team’s only true left back, his form is important. Add in the fact that he can change the point of attack with his long, precise passes (that’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing three years ago), and his value increases. But if he’s not in good form, it might not matter.
“The idea is to arrive in Russia as good as possible,” Layun said after the game. “These are important months where everything is going to be important in order to play a big part in the World Cup, and I have to achieve this goal.”
Shaking off marine layer?
One LA-based player and another soon-to-be-LA-based player had difficult days Friday with Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela struggling to put much together in attack.
Dos Santos started the game behind the forwards and ended up floating mostly to the left. He passed well but couldn’t find players in dangerous positions and didn’t see enough of the ball for a player in the role he was asked to fill. The 28-year-old left to a few jeers from the crowd, but Osorio was happy enough with what the LA Galaxy star provided.
“We understand that the game is one of opinions, but you have to remember that Giovani dos Santos still is considered a young player and he’s played more than 100 matches with the national team. We think you have to have this role in mind and understand that the changes he’s having in his way of training, his life, are now showing results,” Osorio said. “Today he competed at a high level for a much longer time than he did in previous matches. Now, we’re hoping he can recuperate in this footballing aspect and be able to show all his talent.”
Vela came on as a substitute for the final 30 minutes of the match and did less than Dos Santos. The future LAFC forward seemed a bit confused about his role and lost the ball a few times, though he did manage to challenge Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Adrian Foncette wih a shot.
I don’t put much stock in the idea that players going to MLS hurts the Mexico national team as a whole. Jonathan dos Santos has been quality for El Tri and likely will get a chance to show it against Honduras. But there does seem to be a disconnect between what Gio and Vela are trying to do on the field and the way they’re supposed to be fitting into the systems.
Wet pitch causes slip-ups
After 30 minutes, Javier Aquino couldn’t take it any more.
The Mexico winger ran over to the bench at the half-hour mark and swapped out his boots for something that would give him more grip. Other players probably should’ve done the same. Diego Reyes slipped twice as he was sending passes forward from the center back position, and several midfielders had to catch themselves when attempting to get around Trinidad and Tobago defenders.
While the Estadio Alfonso Lastras is receiving continuing improvements after Atletico Madrid-backed Atletico San Luis began play this year and the field was better than some venues around CONCACAF, it wasn’t the highlight. The pitch was watered before the match and it seemed clear that there was a bit too much water on it for players to keep their footing, but nevertheless the sprinklers were back on at halftime.