Mexico's old guard can't break 'fifth game' curse, but future looks bright
When Roberto Firmino tapped in Brazil's second goal at the Cosmos Arena in Samara on Monday, it wasn't just the Mexico fans who were heading toward the exits.
Mexico's elimination at the 2018 World Cup also signaled the likely end for a group of players who many thought would help El Tri break free of its failures to get past the round of 16. While it's not unfathomable to think at least a few will stay on to provide a veteran presence for the team, similar to what Rafa Marquez has offered for the better part of the decade, this tournament was indeed the swan song for some of the country's most beloved performers.
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A particular point of interest will be focused on renovating the attack for the next World Cup cycle. After all, the bulk of Mexico's attack at this tournament will not feature by the time Qatar rolls around. Javier Hernandez, Mexico's all-time leading scorer, will be 34 in 2022. Giovani dos Santos, the LA Galaxy forward, will be 33, the same age as fellow MLS star Carlos Vela. Club America frontman Oribe Peralta, already 34, is more a candidate for retirement than a spot with El Tri four years from now.
Aside from the 22-year-old Hirving Lozano -- and perhaps Jesus Corona, who will be 29 in Qatar -- it's anyone's guess as to who will head the offense for El Tri in the next generation. Hernandez and Vela will still likely be the main targets for next year's Gold Cup, but there will be an urgency to develop players like Pachuca's Victor Guzman and Chivas' Jesus Godinez (23 and 21, respectively) in the near future.
Moving down the lines, Mexico's midfield will also need a thoughtful renovation. Captain Andres Guardado will be 35 when the next World Cup rolls around. Also within manager Juan Carlos Osorio's current group, Jonathan dos Santos, Hector Herrera, Marco Fabian and Javier Aquino will all be in their early 30s in 2022.
Liga MX midfielders, including Rodolfo Pizarro and Jonathan Gonzalez of Monterrey, Orbelin Pineda, Gael Sandoval and Eduardo Lopez of Guadalajara, represent a natural changing of the guard. Diego Lainez of Club America, 18, has already made a big splash both locally and abroad. After a fantastic showing at this year's Toulon Tournament in France, the youngster is on the radar for several European clubs.
On that note, Mexico's willingness to export young talent to Europe -- a trend started by Vela, Dos Santos and Hernandez's generation -- has also seen 20-year-old Uriel Antuna already move to the Eredivisie, while 22-year-old Omar Govea has found a steady home in Belgium on loan from Portuguese giant FC Porto.
Finally, El Tri faces a similar situation in defense as it does with its attackers. The core defensive group that includes Hector Moreno, Hugo Ayala and Miguel Layun are all 30 or older and will probably not be a part of proceedings at the next World Cup. Beyond them, Oswaldo Alanis (29) and Jair Pereira (31) both on Mexico's preliminary list for Russia, will also be past their prime.
Help is on the way, however. Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo, 25 and 26 respectively, missed this World Cup because of injuries. Both will play in Europe next season, and both can take over for Moreno, who missed the clash with Brazil due to yellow card accumulation.
Carlos Salcedo and Jesus Gallardo are both under 25 and have shown they're already more than capable of playing big minutes for El Tri on the wings. Edson Alvarez, just 20, proved to be a mixed bag on the field, but someone with a fair bit of potential down the road. Younger players, like Monterrey's Cesar Montes, Club America's Cesar Vargas and Chivas' Alejandro Mayorga represent tantalizing options for Osorio or whoever is coaching Mexico beyond 2018.
In goal, Mexico will likely still count on Memo Ochoa, who will be 36 in 2022, to at least compete for a spot on their World Cup roster. Alfredo Talavera and Jose de Jesus Corona, Ochoa's backup goalkeepers in Russia, will be 39 and 41 and thus probably phased out. On the bright side, Gibran Lajud of Tijuana and Raul Gudino of Chivas are both under 25.
Though not as highly touted as the supposed Golden Generation before it, the new group of players will need to heed the words of the man who coached their predecessors in order to truly build on the growth of Mexican soccer.
Soon after Neymar and Firmino had squashed any hope of a "quinto partido," Juan Carlos Osorio was frank.
"When Mexico exports more players [to Europe] and plays against better opponents," Osorio said, "the national team will make that jump in quality."
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.