Mexico win in Copa América debut, but hurdles still remain

HOUSTON -- Credit is due to Mexico manager Jaime "Jimmy" Lozano, for now.

After taking a gamble by leaving high-profile veterans such as Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, Guillermo Ochoa and Raúl Jiménez off his Copa América roster, and then watching captain Edson Álvarez suffer an injury during Saturday's tournament opener vs. Jamaica, Mexico still found a way to escape NRG Stadium with a gutsy 1-0 victory.

Carried by a 69th-minute game winner from Gerardo Arteaga, El Tri secured three valuable points in their first group stage clash, but also claimed some worries about whether Alvarez will become a part of the growing list of absent stars.

Following examinations that are set to be done over the next couple of days, the West Ham midfielder could join Club América goalkeeper Luis Malagón, who was recently announced as unavailable for the tournament because of an injury of his own.

"With Edson, we're going to wait until a couple of days to give him an examination," said Lozano on Saturday about Álvarez, who is on the radar of Manchester United. "Obviously as it is with any other player, the intention is not to risk anything. He felt something in his leg."

But as for Chucky Lozano, Ochoa and Jiménez?

All three major absences were tactical decisions made by Jaime Lozano in an attempt to rebuild for the 2026 World Cup, which could end up hurting Mexico's chances in the Copa America -- especially when you consider the looming presence they still had at Saturday's game.

Walking into NRG Stadium, it would have been easy to assume that Lozano's roster gamble had never happened. Milling around the fan zone, which included images of Ochoa on a tequila advertisement, countless supporters sported the names of the celebrity players who were left off the squad.

Had Mexico lost or drawn against underdogs like Jamaica, a fan simply had to look at jerseys on their left or right to know what was possibly missing from El Tri. While some were sipping on tequila before the game in the fan zone, it's likely not a stretch that a few supporters were bemused at the notion that the goalkeeping icon on the ad above them was nowhere to be found in the announced gameday roster.

Roster depth has been a long-time concern for Mexico, and despite the need for a generational change ahead of the World Cup, one could have argued that the decision to leave out the well-known veterans was and perhaps still is premature.

Keep in mind, Lozano knows that this is the most important tournament in his coaching career.

"Without a doubt, without a doubt, of course," he said on Friday when asked whether this was the biggest challenge of his run as manager.

"A Copa América is surely just a step below a World Cup. Because we are not always invited, because there are teams that have been world champions many times. Without a doubt, without a doubt, the most important tournament [of my career]."

And yet, he still made the wager, taking a chance on his Texas hold 'em hand that won him all of Saturday's chips.

Hitting the ground running with more possession in the first half, Mexico looked superior over their opponents, often controlling the momentum of the match. Even after Alvarez's injury, and a Jamaica goal called offside by VAR, El Tri did well to compose themselves and build the confidence needed that led to Arteaga's opportunity.

"It's not easy to recover and remain balanced after your captain exits so rapidly," Lozano said. "But it seems to me that the team stabilized quickly."

The match was tense, and Jamaica kept pace with opportunities of their own, but it was Arteaga's strike in the second half that proved to be the difference-maker. With the lead in hand, and with substitute Luis Romo doing well to take over Alvarez's position in the heart of the XI and goalkeeper Julio González standing tall in goal, Mexico secured three points by the final whistle.

"Suddenly we had more clarity with the ball and we were better positioned," Lozano said. "The team settled down, played with personality and also generated some very valuable and very important chances."

Three points earned, but Lozano can't cash out just yet. Realistically speaking, Jamaica were the easiest opponents at the Group B poker table.

With or without Alvarez as their leader, Mexico will soon find themselves against more difficult opposition in their upcoming matches vs. Venezuela and Ecuador. While El Tri should be proud of narrowly escaping with a victory against a fellow Concacaf colleague like Jamaica amid a roster transition, the challenge will be far greater as they close out the group stage with true CONMEBOL hurdles on the horizon.

Credit should be given to Lozano and his players, but the job is far from done for the tournament's two-time finalists who are expected to at least go beyond the group stage.

And more than likely in those upcoming matches that could decide whether El Tri move on, those looming veteran figures will remain, possibly as a reminder of what Mexico may be missing. Depending on how things go, Alvarez could be part of the absences as well.