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Slow start leaves Mexico to defuse their own soccer crisis

Mar 27, 2013, 2:14 AM EDT

Mexico's head coach De La Torre reacts during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match against the U.S in Mexico City Reuters

After the eight days of turmoil that has surrounded the U.S. and Jurgen Klinsmann, we’re very familiar with what goes into a soccer crisis. So let’s consider the U.S.’s rivals to the south, a team with a history of near-breakthroughs who were supposed to finally transcend CONCACAF this cycle. They won Olympic gold this summer, have as big a talent edge in the region as they’ve had since the late 1980s, and were expected to roll through CONACAF qualifying. Mexico was supposed to become a global, not regional power.

Instead El Tri sits fifth out of six teams after Tuesday’s 0-0 with the United States. Shut out over 180 minutes at Azteca, Mexico’s already dropped four points at home. And remember the qualifying cliché: You have to win your home games (even if nobody in CONCACAF wins them all).

That last part may be the most disappointing part of Mexico’s start. Their schedule hasn’t been particularly hard, especially when contrasted with their rivals’. The United States sit one point ahead of El Tri, and they’ve already finished what are arguably their two most difficult trips: to Mexico City and San Pedro Sula (insert nod to Saprissa here). While Mexico did just finished a historically troublesome trip to Honduras, they also failed to win home games against the States and Jamaica.

Mexico should have expected at least six points from these first three rounds, if not nine (given the talent on this team). Instead, they have three. Thirty percent of the way through CONCACAF’s final round, those results demand some kind of scrutiny.

That scrutiny isn’t about whether Mexico will qualify for Brazil – they will. It isn’t about whether they have the talent to meet their fans’ ambitions, because we’ve seen how this team performs when it’s clicking. The scrutiny needs to be about whether they’re getting the most out of their talent. Or, when they’ll get the most out of their talent.

(MORE: Omar Gonzalez – Man of the Match.)

And let’s be real about this: That kind of language is code for “is this the right coach?” Even typing that out, part of me thinks it’s ludicrous to question Jose Manuel de la Torre – a man who has yet to lose a competitive match. Yet when a team’s results not only fail to meet expectations but their play is starting to regress, you have to ask whether the side’s headed in the wrong direction. And if you determine it is, the question becomes whether the man at the helm is also the best man to lead their recovery.

It’s two months before Mexico plays again, and Mexican futbol will immediately start debating Jose Manuel de la Torre’s performance, he’s likely to survive until El Tri goes to Jamaica on June 4th. But three days later, Mexico’s in Panama, then they host Costa Rica ahead of the Confederations Cup. Particularly with those two road games, things don’t look to get much easier for “Chepo” going forward.

That’s why there may be some urgency here. If something is deemed wrong with the team, can the FMF risk it? Can they risk letting an under-performing go to two tough road matches with the possibility of coming out the other end winless through five rounds?

Of course not. In a Hex that’s looking deeper than ever, round five may prove too late to guarantee a top three finish without others’ help.

(MORE: A little luck needed to get result in Mexico)

That’s the process that will be going on the media over the next two months: Do we make a change? If not now, when? Where do we need to be come after June’s qualifiers? And is it worth waiting to see if that happens?

For a coach of Chepo’s stature, it seems unfathomable that three draws could guide him out the door. But the pieces are starting to fall into place.

You think the U.S. was in crisis last week? Imagine that plus Mexico’s expectations, plus a disappointing result against your arch rivals. Because right now, El Tri‘s approaching DEFCON 1.

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