- Robert Jonas | Center Line Soccer

Just a week ago, national teams across the globe congregated briefly for a set of matches. some of these games were meaningful qualifiers for this or that, while others were of the friendly variety. In CONCACAF, countries in action during that period took the opportunity to prepare their teams for the upcoming Gold Cup tournament starting in June with a series of high-profile matches featuring quality opponents from South America. While the less than impressive exploits of Team USA have been well chronicled, the other regional power Mexico also failed to shed doubts about their preparation for this summer. Given a chance to see El Tri play in person against Paraguay and on television against Venezuela, it is safe to see that there is no clear leader between the top two teams in CONCACAF at this stage.

Mexico certainly had some players worth noting, especially in their first friendly against Paraguay. Goal scoring hero Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez continued the great run of form he has enjoyed for club and country since returning from the World Cup, netting either side of a well taken goal from midfielder Andres Guardado. Hernandez most impressively showed his uncanny ability to find space in even the most stingy of defenses to get shots on target. Against Venezuela three days later in San Diego, Hernandez failed to find the back of the net, but time and time again he exposed the opposition defense for clear scoring opportunities. With some slightly better service, he could have easily added to his international scoring account in that game.

Hernandez does not operate on an island, and was helped greatly by the industrious work of fellow forward Pablo Barrera. Against Paraguay in Oakland, Barrera positioned himself for long spells of the first half on the right side of the field, taking possession deep into the corner at times to stretch the defense and give Hernandez room to operate. On both the first and second goals of the game, that ability to attract defenders away from the center of the area, led to passing lanes opening up for the forward. Paraguay never adjusted to the unbalanced front line employed by Mexico in the first half, and found themselves trailing 3-0 by the 35th minute.

Doing the dirty work in the midfield were Ricardo Osorio, Gerardo Torrado, and most notably Israel Castro. All three would fill lanes in the attacking third and splashed the ball around with ease against Paraguay. Most alarming from a U.S. point of view was watching Mexico take advantage of the seemingly more physical Paraguay defenders by utilizing the width of the field and drawing defenders out of position. Unable to compete on the wings allowed Mexico to push their lines beyond the center line for long stretches of the first half in particular. Conceding so much space really played into the strengths of Hernandez and he easily earned his brace on the day.

Looking more closely at Mexico’s 1-1 draw with Venezuela, the flaws in El Tri were more on display. To some degree in Oakland, but more so in San Diego, the Mexico back four did not play with the unity needed to keep quick forwards from finding space in and around the area. Erstwhile captain Rafa Marquez, who earned his 100th cap for Mexico in the match against Paraguay, did his best to shepherd the defenders in some semblance of order, but too often, they would drift into the attack with little regard for their defensive responsibilities. Still, they did just enough to limit the quality scoring opportunities by their opponents, with just one goal scored during the run of play — and that was late in the Paraguay game when things were already settled.

Mexico’s vulnerability to set pieces came back to haunt them in the Venezuela match, as an equalizer from Oswaldo Vizcarrondo off a corner kick resulted from some poor marking on the Venezuela defender. Making matters worse on the sequence was the apparent inability of goalkeeper Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa to track the kick sufficiently to punch it away from danger ahead of Vizcarrondo’s headed goal. Ochoa, one of the commercial faces of El Tri did little to help his case that he should be selected to the Gold Cup roster this June.

Perhaps little new was learned by watching Mexico in these two international friendlies. Some of the usual bullet points in scouting reports past could be recycled to describe what has been on display in 2011. The bright spots for Mexico were the continuing emergence of Javier Hernandez as a deadly striker and capable possession oriented central midfielders Israel Castro and Andres Guardado. The defense-stretching runs of Pablo Barrera and the steady defensive holding of Ricardo Osorio all stood out. However, for all of Mexico’s ability to control the pace and momentum in each match, some defensive frailty should give hope to future opponents that waiting patiently to counterattack while staying mindful of Mexico’s attacking runs out of the midfield and along the flanks that goals can be scored. Take advantage of deep set pieces and the best strategy for beating Mexico remains consistent.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.

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