Mexico Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre walks off the field after his team's… (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images )
Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre is, by all accounts, a personable and intelligent fellow. So when he was named coach of Mexico's national soccer team three years ago he had to have known the next career move would be his firing.
In the last four decades, only one Mexican coach — Ricardo La Volpe, in 2002-06 — has lasted an entire four-year World Cup qualifying cycle. It now seems obvious Chepo won't be the second.
Thursday's 2-0 win over Canada in Gold Cup play — only the third victory in 14 matches for Mexico this year — may have delayed De la Torre's dismissal, but it won't save his job. Mexico, which plays Martinique on Sunday in its final match of group play, will probably have to win the tournament if De la Torre is to survive through the resumption of World Cup qualifying in September.
That's not going to happen the way the U.S. is playing, with Saturday's 4-1 win over Cuba extending the Americans' winning streak to seven and giving them 16 goals in their last three matches.
Meanwhile, the longer De la Torre stays, the more of a distraction he becomes and the longer the eventual transition to a new coach — say, assistant Luis Fernando Tena, who coached Mexico to a gold medal in last summer's Olympic Games, or Miguel "Piojo" Herrera, who led politically connected Club America to a Mexican League title this year — is delayed.
It had to be unsettling to Mexico's players to see their coach pelted with debris as he walked off the field at the Rose Bowl last Sunday after a 2-1 loss to Panama in their Gold Cup opener. It was certainly unsettling to De la Torre, who needed an hour to compose himself before appearing at a postgame news conference where many of the questions centered on his future.
Is the job too big for you? he was asked.
"No," De la Torre snapped in Spanish. "You asked for a direct and clear answer. And I said no."
Clearly something is amiss. Mexico won all six of its matches, outscoring opponents 15-2, in the third round of World Cup qualifying last year. But in its first six matches in the Hexagonal round this year, De la Torre's team has won just once.
Once unbeatable at home — El Tri entered the Hexagonal 37-1-2 in qualifiers in Azteca Stadium — Mexico has yet to score a goal there this year.
In fact, of the 12 goals Mexico has scored in its 14 games this season, Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez has accounted for seven of them and Olympic standout Marco Fabian has another three. That's not the kind of shared production De la Torre envisioned he would get from a veteran team built around Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos and Aldo de Nigris, who have played together for years.
So De la Torre has begun framing Mexico's recent failures as a learning experience.
"Listen, if you don't have character, you can't overcome difficult situations," said De la Torre, who, like other coaches whose countries are involved in World Cup qualifying, is using a "B" team in the Gold Cup. "Any difficult situation that you have along the road, you have to think: How are you going to turn things around? How are you going to react? Are you going to stay still, or analyze the circumstances and keep working?
"We are here with a very ambitious project with capable people on this national team. We've been very focused. We haven't gotten the results we want, but we are going to keep working hard in order to get better. There is no bad streak that lasts forever. We're going to keep working to get the better streaks."
But time is running out on both De la Torre and Mexico.
The country, which has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in a World Cup, had high expectations for Brazil next summer. Now Mexico finds itself locked in a tight battle with Honduras and Panama just to qualify for the tournament.
For the time being, however, the Mexican soccer federation is standing by its man.
"There is no Plan B," national teams director Hector Gonzalez Inarritu said last month. "I'm confident that we will qualify for the World Cup and we will win the Gold Cup."
Meanwhile De la Torre is left to twist in the wind, with fans and the media calling for a firing he knew would come when he took job. The only question now is when.
"When I got this position I knew exactly the challenges that I took," he said last week in Seattle. "If I paid attention to [the criticism], I would be sick, I would be in the hospital. That's why I'm concerned with my job and what I'm doing and planning to move forward."