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Mexico will need Midas touch to reach World Cup finals

Victor Manuel Vucetich gets the call with team in desperate position in qualifying. 'We have no margin for error,' he says.

September 14, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Victor Manuel Vucetich is introduced as Mexico's new national team coach during a news conference Thursday.
Victor Manuel Vucetich is introduced as Mexico's new national team… (Christian Palma / Associated…)

It took three years, but Mexico finally got the man it wanted to manage its national team in World Cup qualifying.

The question now is, is it too late?

By the time Mexico got around to introducing Victor Manuel Vucetich as its coach Thursday, El Tri had sunk to its lowest point in decades. With only two October matches left in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Mexico is fifth in the six-team group. Only the top three countries automatically advance to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, leaving Mexico in danger of missing the tournament for the first time since 1990.

That made the decision to pick Vucetich an easy one. In 23 years as a coach in Mexico's first division Vucetich has won five league championships with four teams, earning the nickname "King Midas" for his ability to turn around failing clubs.

But even the king admits saving Mexico at this stage may require more than just a golden touch.

"It's a critical situation," he said at his introductory news conference. "It's the most important challenge of my career, without a doubt.

"Hopefully this hot potato turns into a gold potato. We have no margin for error."

Which brings us to this question: Why did Mexico wait so long?

Vucetich was the favorite for the job at the start of the World Cup cycle three years ago before taking himself out of the running at the last minute for unexplained personal reasons. Two days later Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre was hired.

And though De la Torre was successful in his first two years, with Mexico going unbeaten en route to the 2011 Gold Cup title and cruising through the third round of World Cup qualifying last year with a perfect record, there were signs of trouble.

During the Gold Cup, five players tested positive for a banned substance. Then came a feud with star forward Carlos Vela that has kept him off the national team since March 2011, and a more recent falling-out with goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, which kept him off the roster for this month's crucial World Cup qualifiers.

Disagreements between coaches and players are nothing new — nor are they necessarily bad. Witness the recent tension between Landon Donovan and U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, which has helped take Donovan's game to new heights.

Mexico's real problem may have been a lethal combination of hubris and overconfidence that lulled its soccer federation into complacency just when the alarm bells should have been sounding.

In the 2011 Gold Cup and the third round of World Cup qualifying last year, Mexico went 12-0 combined, outscoring opponents 37-6. De la Torre's team was so clearly the class of the CONCACAF group there was open speculation he might run the table in the final round of Cup qualifying as well.

Instead, Mexico went more than five months without a win. And in its first 11 matches this year it was shut out six times — three of those coming at Azteca Stadium, El Tri's once impenetrable Mexico City fortress.

After three home matches in which Mexico failed to score a goal, much less win a game, the country's famously inpatient fans booed De la Torre off the field. The soccer federation, meanwhile, remained confident he would turn things around. And it stayed that way even after Mexico was eliminated in group play in June's Confederations Cup.

It wasn't until July's Gold Cup, in which Mexico lost twice to Panama and failed to reach the final that the federation's support began to waver. After a contentious closed-door meeting the federation and the owners of Mexico's first-division clubs backed De la Torre, saying his performance his first two years on the job earned him another chance at righting the ship.

The real reason may have been they had no one better to turn to.

That changed three weeks ago when Vucetich, 58, was fired from his job with Monterrey, making him the national team manager in waiting. So when Mexico lost to Honduras on Sept. 6 — its first home loss in World Cup qualifying in more than 12 years — the federation sacked De la Torre and named assistant Luis Fernando Tena to the head job on an interim basis, with the understanding that anything less than a win over the U.S. in the next qualifier would lead to his firing.

The U.S. beat Mexico, Tena was fired and a day later Vucetich became the third national team manager in five days.

Now King Midas has just three weeks to assemble a new coaching staff, coax Vela and Ochoa back into the fold and diagnose why a supremely talented team has produced only four goals in eight qualifiers this year. At his news conference, Vucetich hinted it may all be in the players' heads.

"The mental aspect … is the main problem we have to face," he said.

Well, not really. The main problem is getting to Brazil, something Mexico could do by winning its final two qualifiers against Panama and Costa Rica — provided it gets some outside help. A more likely scenario for Mexico is a fourth-place finish in the CONCACAF standings. If so, Mexico would face a two-game play-in series against New Zealand in November for a final World Cup berth.

How Mexico gets to Brazil isn't important. But federation President Justino Compean left no doubt he expects his team to be there.

"Vucetich knows the important moment we're going through," Compean said "and he's accepting the challenge. We are sure that with his experience, dedication and professionalism … Mexico will be in Brazil."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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