There’s a sense of creeping dread familiar to Mexican soccer fans, that sinking feeling that occurs when the opposition progresses past the midfield and is driving at the back line: “Oh no. We can’t stop them.”
Mexico has a long history of great goalkeepers and defensive midfielders. Defenders? El Tri hasn’t exactly excelled there. With respect to Ricardo “La Volpe” Osorio, two of Mexico’s other best-ever defenders, Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido, were better in midfield.
So Mexico fans now find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Heading into Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup, the defense looks settled. It looks confident. It looks … good?
Yes, it looks good, and it does whether interim manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti goes with four or five players at the back. But how did this happen? How did defense go from a terrifying element of the Mexican team to a reassuring one?
The biggest factor is the changing of the guard. Veteran Maza Rodriguez is finally out of the picture, and while Mexico should have plenty of respect for the former PSV man, it’s a current PSV man that’s inspiring so much confidence at center back.
Hector Moreno has been the best Mexican defender for several years, playing twice in the 2010 World Cup and helping El Tri to a Gold Cup triumph in 2011. But he recently struggled to get fit, falling victim to injury in Mexico’s final World Cup match and missing much of the 2014-15 club season. Then he suffered an injury in the warm-up friendly matches ahead of the Gold Cup. The quick, savvy Moreno is now healthy, restoring one of El Tri’s best players to its lineup.
But Moreno already was in the Mexican set up. What he’s been lacking, aside from a good bill of health, is a partner. Diego Reyes has provided just that, steeping up at the international level. But until recently, Reyes was wasting away with Porto, seeing no time. A loan move to Real Sociedad this summer has paid huge dividends for the 23-year-old.
Reyes finding regular time under manager David Moyes is an enormous help to him and his national team. After putting in a Man of the Match performance in a rivalry match with Athletic Club two matchdays ago, Reyes managed to avoid utter embarrassment last weekend when Malaga’s Brazilian striker Charles put a hat trick past Sociedad. Though it wasn’t a clinic, he held together better than partner Iñigo Martínez to make sure he still enters the international break in good form.
Another player hitting the right stride thanks to a deadline-day move is Miguel Layun. After playing sporadically with Watford, and mostly playing in midfield when he saw time, the ex-América man finds himself getting regular time with Porto at left back. While there, he seems to have cut down on the errant balls that are too often his trademark, instead setting up a number of goals. Defensively, he hasn’t been challenged too often in the Portuguese league, which the Americans may try to exploit.
Even right-sider Paul Aguilar, who has been the victim of plenty of abuse from Mexico fans, comes in relatively hot. After missing the September friendly matches with a thigh problem, the America defender has come back and acquitted himself well with his club. In addition to keeping pace with his marks down the wing, Aguilar got forward and scored in a 2-1 win against Chiapas on Saturday.
All together, a back four of Reyes and Moreno in the middle, with Aguilar and Layun wide, would set up very nicely for Mexico, giving El Tri something it’s not used to at all – a settled back line. That will be key to returning Mexico to something it was very used to for a long time – regional supremacy.
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