Mexico tries to find more offense
Believe it or not, there are many varieties of scoreless ties. Some, of course, are based in bad play, and many times the goalless result means it's back to the drawing board for both teams.
Then there are the scoreless games from which a coach can learn a lot about his players and team. Mexico's match with Ecuador on Friday night was one of those. The tepid encounter in New York didn't send the Mexican crowd home happy, but it left coach Javier Aguirre with a better idea of exactly what El Tri need to work on during the next few weeks as they gradually move closer to that June 11 opener against South Africa.
Through 90 minutes, it was apparent that the players hadn't seen game action in nearly a month. As it turns out, Mexico's extended pre-World Cup camp, which began in mid-April, has not only robbed a group of Mexico's best from their club teams but also cost the players much of their game sharpness.
It might take the core of Mexico's World Cup squad a few weeks to recover its game legs. Luckily, it has that luxury. Mexico will play Monday in Chicago against Senegal and Thursday in Houston against Angola. A final send-off match in Mexico is also on tap before the team moves its base to Europe ahead of the World Cup.
In the meantime, the Ecuador match proved the team needs game time to get sharp. But that's not all that could be garnered from the game in front of a sellout crowd of disappointed Mexican fans. An incomplete Mexico squad demonstrated why it is far from a finished product without its contingent that is playing in Europe.
Of the European reinforcements on the way, five are defenders. That suggests that the strength of generally offensive-minded Mexico might actually be in the back this year. With Carlos Salcido, Francisco Rodriguez and Hector Moreno on the way from Dutch league Eredivisie, and Ricardo Osorio from the Bundesliga, there has even been talk of moving Barcelona defender and Mexican field general Rafael Marquez to a holding midfield position in a bid to get more of Mexico's best players on the field at once.
Although defense will be a strength for Mexico in South Africa, even the suggestion of moving Marquez to midfield speaks to the weaknesses of what is otherwise shaping up to be the strongest Mexican team in years. Deep in defense, overloaded on the wings and solid at striker and even in goal, Mexico's biggest hole is the lack of a creative option to add an extra dimension to the attack from the middle of the field.
On Friday, Israel Castro played alongside Gerardo Torrado in the middle, but both are primarily defensive and had few creative ideas, leaving the Mexicans' most dangerous forays to come down the wings through Efrain Juarez and Alberto Medina. Attacking from the flanks has become Mexico's strong suit and undoubtedly will continue to be a focus in South Africa as more weapons are added to the arsenal, but it's still not clear whether anyone is perfectly suited to play a more offensive role in the middle.
Giovani Dos Santos is the obvious answer, but at the club level and even under Aguirre for Mexico, he has been more dangerous in a wide role. One man who might have played a more central position, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, has lost several steps and put on pounds since his time in MLS, and is now clearly unfit to cover the ground required of even the most offensively minded center midfielder. Another potential option in central midfield, nationalized Brazilian Zinha, was left off the roster by Aguirre despite solid play in the Mexican league.
With Carlos Vela and Andres Guardado adding to the wing options, it looks as if much of El Tri's game will be based on getting wide of opposing defenses and looking to get balls into the box, where the clever Blanco or ambitious Javier Hernandez can get on the end of them. But the type of experienced and athletic wingbacks Mexico will face in South Africa could foil that strategy quickly, and without a more central option to turn to, Mexico's attack could sputter.
An experienced coach like Aguirre, however, is likely to come up with something. He has three more games with the current group to try to figure out the answer, after which he can add his European options to the attack.
So despite the somewhat troubling offensive show from El Tri of late, help is on the way. And those European reinforcements are not the only additional asset Aguirre and his team will call on in South Africa. Mexico has become one of the more experienced World Cup contenders and has a more impressive track record than many recognize. El Tri are one of just four teams, with Brazil, Italy and Germany, to make the second round of the World Cup in each of the past four editions.
That's some impressive company at the highest level, with one caveat. Those quality first-round performances are also as far as Mexico has been able to get in recent years. It has bowed out in the round of 16 in four straight tournaments as well, suffering some painful defeats -- including a loss to the U.S. in 2002.
Mexico's World Cup pedigree will give the team confidence in South Africa, but the second-round obstacles of the past also weigh heavily. For this mostly young Mexican team, already labeled the golden generation of Mexican soccer, Aguirre's work during the next few weeks will go a long way toward determining whether El Tri suffers a setback in South Africa or furthers its already-considerable résumé of World Cup accomplishment.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at email@example.com.