In September, when Mexico embarked on the first three games of World Cup qualifying along with the rest of the seven surviving CONCACAF nations, a largely disappointing summer coupled with a lack of key players had a sector of pundits and fans foretelling doom. There were calls for manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino to be fired if El Tri's supposed downward spiral continued.
Three matches later, Mexico sits in first place in the Octagonal, undefeated and with their coach finding newfound job security despite missing two games on the touchline due to eye surgery. To boot, they head into the October slate of matches with those big contributors back -- Raul Jimenez, Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera -- in the fold.
Mexico will host a rising and dangerous Canada (Oct. 7) and an always difficult Honduras (Oct. 10) at Estadio Azteca before traveling to upstart El Salvador (Oct. 13). With returning stars in tow and two home games, expectations for Mexico and Martino have flipped -- those same pundits and fans will be hoping the results won't flip, too.
(Editor's note: players are listed below with name/club; U.S. caps/goals)
Jesus Corona (Porto/POR; 58/10), Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey; 10/4), Raul Jimenez (Wolverhampton Wanderers/ENG; 86/27), Hirving Lozano (Napoli/ITA; 48/14), Henry Martin (Club America; 16/4), Uriel Antuna (Chivas; 23/8), Alexis Vega (Chivas; 10/2)
After last month's COVID-19 travel ban sparked another fight between FIFA and some of the top European leagues, cooler heads prevailed in allowing Raul Jimenez and Hirving Lozano to suit up for Mexico in October, despite the pandemic's continued presence.
Jimenez and Lozano will immediately slip into starting roles for Martino and lead Mexico's three-man attacking line -- whether they do it with Jesus Corona, who was hot and cold for El Tri in September, remains to be seen. Even amid the rotation of players expected to take place due to playing three games in one week, it will be interesting to see if Uriel Antuna or Alexis Vega -- the two Chivas standouts -- can compete for Corona's place in the lineup against Canada, a game expected to feature Mexico's first-choice team.
The big question up front for Martino is largely answered by Jimenez returning from injury (and to form, if we take his recent goal against Southampton into consideration). However, should the Argentine manager decide to give his target man rest at some point, lingering doubts about depth at the striker position will come back into the forefront. Rogelio Funes Mori and Henry Martin have been good in short spurts, but noticeably less dangerous when given extended minutes.
As far as absences go, despite coming back from injury, Real Betis youngster Diego Lainez was given more time to hang back in Spain and regain his form after injuries have derailed his start of the European club season. Jose Juan Macias, who has been steadily gaining minutes with LaLiga outfit Getafe, was also left behind. A fantastic combo play between LA Galaxy duo Efrain Alvarez and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez against Real Salt Lake on Sept. 29 was also not enough for either to be required by Martino for this round of games.
Edson Alvarez (Ajax Amsterdam/NED; 48/2), Sebastian Cordova (Club America; 9/2), Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy/USA; 59/5), Andres Guardado (Real Betis/ESP; 169/28), Hector Herrera (Atletico Madrid/ESP; 88/9), Orbelin Pineda (Cruz Azul; 40/6), Luis Romo (Cruz Azul; 13/0), Carlos Rodriguez (Monterrey; 23/0)
In the last round of games, Mexico's central midfielders were key to success. Edson Alvarez and Andres Guardado, among others, readily turned defense into offense with ease, allowing possession to favor El Tri for most of the three matches. This time around, they'll be boosted by the return of reigning LaLiga champion Hector Herrera, who sat out in September.
Herrera's stamina and superior reading of the game will essentially force teams to push the ball on the wings or bypass the midfield with long passes, allowing Mexico to zone in on much smaller areas of the pitch. Against younger, speedier teams like Canada, this might prove vital if it allows Martino to focus on the threat posed by players like Alphonso Davies or Jonathan David. It also means limiting the influence of talented Canadian midfielders like Stephen Eustaquio.
Should Mexico want to turn to more offensive-minded players in that part of the field, Sebastian Cordova, Orbelin Pineda and Luis Romo can offer a breadth of solutions, and can spell Guardado or Herrera if need be in one of the two later matches where fatigue will undoubtedly become an issue. Missing this time around are Cruz Azul's Roberto Alvarado, Inter Miami CF's Rodolfo Pizarro and Leon's David Ramirez, who were all called up in September. Though he has slowly returned to PSV Eindhoven's rotation, Erick Gutierrez was not deemed worthy either.
Nestor Araujo (Celta/ESP; 52/3), Julio Cesar Dominguez (Cruz Azul; 19/0), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey; 63/0), Cesar Montes (Monterrey; 17/1), Hector Moreno (Monterrey; 117/4), Luis Rodriguez (Tigres; 33/2), Osvaldo Rodriguez (Leon; 5/0), Jorge Sanchez (Club America; 17/0), Johan Vasquez (Genoa/ITA; 2/0)
Though plagued by injuries and spotty play on the wings, Mexico's defensive unit went largely untouched by opposing teams last month -- El Tri allowed just two goals in three games and generally kept attackers at bay. Thus, the return of both Hector Moreno and Johan Vasquez will provide invaluable depth and talent to the middle part of Martino's backline. It seems likely Vasquez will pair up with Nestor Araujo in Mexico's first-choice team, though Martino might choose continuity by keeping Araujo next to Cesar Montes, who played very well in tandem with the Celta Vigo center back last month.
In all likelihood, we probably won't see an experiment like Julio Cesar Dominguez starting at left back the way we did against Costa Rica, but Mexico's lack of depth at both left and right back remains an issue. Perhaps, that could have been partially solved by calling on Genk's Gerardo Arteaga or Club America's Salvador Reyes, the best in-form lateral defenders in Martino's pool. Alas, Martino passed on them both, opting once more for Luis Rodriguez and Jorge Sanchez, who have been constantly singled out as being weak links in the squad.
The same four goalkeepers called on for the first round of games come back in October. Last time around, there were questions to whether Martino would include the goalkeeping position in his player rotations -- it did not. The ageless Guillermo Ochoa was there for all three games, and proved once again to be head and shoulders above anyone else for the job even at this point in his career (he'll be 37 by the time the World Cup rolls around).
Even then, should Martino need to look at someone else, Orozco, Cota and Talavera remain some of Liga MX's top shot stoppers. Santos Laguna's campaign to get Carlos Acevedo called in has not been successful yet -- though the 25-year-old has been rock solid for the team this season. Real Salt Lake's David Ochoa, who filed a one-time switch with FIFA to represent El Tri earlier this year, was also not taken into account.