Herrera to start 7 Club America players vs. New Zealand

Posted by Eric Gomez

MEXICO CITY -- The most successful club in CONCACAF and Mexican history will swap out its characteristic yellow jersey for the familiar green of El Tri Wednesday.

The players will hop out on their home pitch, hoping to cash in on its familiar confines, on their chemistry, and on the quality of a few outsiders who have congealed well enough to fill in the gaps for Miguel Herrera’s patchwork Mexico squad.

In the face of its most dangerous challenge, Mexico has gone from Plan A to Plan Z in two months, leaving former manager "Chepo" de la Torre and his reliance on European stars completely behind, to an Herrera-led team with zero foreign-based players and with seven from Club America in the starting lineup against New Zealand at the Azteca in Wednesday's first leg of the playoff for a berth in next year's World Cup in Brazil (3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN/ESPN3).

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As he employs a 5-3-2 formation that won him the league title last season, Herrera’s intent to treat the national team as an extension of America, the club team he will certainly leave behind should he complete the mission against the Kiwis, has given national press and fans a sort of odd calm before the storm.

Herrera will hand over the reins of the midfield to Juan Carlos Medina, Carlos Pena and Luis Montes, who have 18 international caps combined. Up front, he’ll rely on Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez, whose hot streaks and timely goals have a statistical counterpoint.

In a combined 44 national team appearances, the Santos Laguna and Club America striker partnership has just 13 goals -- 22 fewer than Manchester United's Javier Hernandez.

Mexico’s back line has two recognizable faces and should provide calm to supporters. But Rafael Marquez, 34, and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez, 32, have had various pointed critiques thrown their way about a myriad of issues.

Rodriguez was responsible for a second-half penalty against Honduras in San Pedro Sula that completed a Tri meltdown in March, Marquez was nowhere to be seen for both Costa Rica goals in the Hex finale last month. Rodriguez was at one point a candidate to sit on the bench for his club team. Marquez’s legendary temper has seen him sent off at key times despite being given the captain’s armband repeatedly.

Rounding out the trio of central defenders? Juan Carlos Valenzuela, who had an own goal against Finland in San Diego not two weeks ago. Wingbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar are better suited for attacking than defending, meaning the middle part of Herrera’s defense will have the spotlight on it for 180 minutes, including the second leg on Nov. 20 in New Zealand.

Goalkeeper Moises Munoz has become, quite likely, the biggest surprise amid the wholesale changes. Just a few months ago, the America netminder was nowhere to be found on anyone's radar for El Tri’s starting job. Now, after a 45-minute cameo against Finland, he has beat out former No. 1 Jose de Jesus Corona and Ajaccio’s Guillermo Ochoa for the opportunity to get Mexico to the World Cup.

Skepticism aside, there is more than a glimmer of hope. There is outward confidence within the group. Club America has been a bastion of effective, punishingly offensive football in the past year and a half under Herrera. No Liga MX manager has more wins than the new Mexico national team boss in the past year.

His motivational tactics, his on-the-field adjustments and most important, his grand enthusiasm when under fire, have made him a bit of a worldwide celebrity in the past six months. After Club America's massive Liga MX final comeback against Cruz Azul last May, a slow-motion replay of Herrera’s celebrations became an Internet meme, and apparently sealed his fate as the man who would be entrusted in taking the team to Brazil 2014.

America is Liga MX’s reining champion. This season, without former star striker Christian Benitez, the team bested last season’s regular-season record and obtained more than 70 percent of the available points in the Apertura 2013, coasting to a first-place finish.

Santos and Leon are rest of the cream of the crop that round out this season’s Liga MX best, reinforcing Herrera’s logic that a group of close-knit players who are undoubtedly riding a wave of momentum will certainly be a better idea than relying on wishy-washy, inconsistent players who have had their egos damaged more than once from faulty Tri performances.

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