The most famous image of Miguel Herrera shows the Mexico head coach going super saiyan. Exuberant goal celebrations like that one have gone viral since his Club América days, but the most popular depicts Herrera twisting and yelling before the edit kicks in to make him transform in Dragon Ball Z style. When Mexico entered the global spotlight at last summer’s World Cup, the gifs made Herrera El Tri’s biggest star.
It’s part of El Piojo’s image, one he cultivates on social media by posting selfies and pictures with celebrities, retweeting jokes and sending out photos ranging from him with his wax likeness to more mundane moments with his family, or when he appears in various advertisements.
It’s fair to say Miguel Herrera really is a happy, jolly man, though might not be quite as content this summer. Even though Herrera says the national team job hasn’t changed him, two major international competitions over the course of two months could draw out another side of his fun persona.
“My personality with El Tri continues being the same,” he assured at a news conference in Los Angeles, where his team faces Ecuador on Saturday. “I haven’t changed anything,” though that consistency will be tested with hopes of advancing in June’s Copa America, on the heels of which Mexico will be expected to reclaim CONCACAF’s Gold Cup.
There’s pressure as the Club América manager, just ask incumbent Gustavo Matosas, but in no way does that compare to the weight on the shoulders of the Mexico boss. The country expects success, especially within the region, and as it showed when it used four different managers in 2013, it won’t hesitate to make a change.
Herrera has been immune to those pressures thus far, thanks to a fair bit of slack from national team director Héctor González Iñárritu (Oscar-winning director Alejandro’s brother), though the coach’s success plays a big part. El Piojo got Mexico into the World Cup after others oversaw a rocky qualifying campaign that necessitated a playoff against New Zealand. He had a successful World Cup, and though he didn’t take Mexico to an elusive quarterfinal, many fans put that down to a controversial penalty decision the Dutch were awarded their chance at a winner from the spot.
That long leash will shorten quickly if Mexico starts to slip, with this summer’s challenges providing the potential pitfalls, the first of which will be in Chile. June’s Copa America is especially interesting this year, as unlike previous invitees to the South America championship sent from the region, CONCACAF apparently won’t put an age cap on the team headed to CONMEBOL’s showpiece. Instead, Herrera will make his own decision about how strong of a team to take.
That decision will be influenced by those expectations. Like in the World Cup, Mexico is in Group A with the host nation – a group Herrera’s men will be expected to get out of. But having to assemble squads for both Copa and the Gold Cup will be a massive test of depth, and there are some places where Mexico is thin.
The back line is aging, with March friendlies against Ecuador and Paraguay serving as breeding grounds for younger center backs since veterans Rafa Márquez and Francisco Javier “Maza” Rodríguez are missing. If Herrera forges ahead playing a 5-3-2 formation, he’ll likely need at least eight center backs in his squads, something that will require veterans and inexperienced players alike to make the numbers.
The forward line also has questions. Yes, Javier Hernández and Raúl Jiménez technically make up a front line from two of La Liga’s best clubs, but they play for Real Madrid and Atlético so little it’s almost a nominal distinction. Both scored in November friendlies, giving fans hope that the lack of meaningful minutes won’t bring down the former Liga MX stars. Even looking down the depth chart, younger options like Erick “Cubo” Torres also aren’t seeing consistent playing time.
Given the importance of the Gold Cup, Márquez and Maza, Chicharito and Raul probably will be in the U.S. any way. The winner of that competition will face the United States, winner of the 2013 tournament, in a playoff to qualify for the Confederations Cup (the U.S. will advance automatically rather than playing itself if it takes the title). That tournament was one of the few things that didn’t go horribly wrong for José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre in 2013, and like the U.S., Mexico believes both the acclimatization and the level of competition make the Confederations Cup a desirable destination.
The United States is the current holder, and no team outside North America ever has won the Gold Cup. That’s motivating both Costa Rica and Panama, who will bring stronger sides than ever to the U.S. in July. Not lifting the trophy won’t be acceptable. Mexico needs to get back to the top of the heap to show it’s the strongest team in the region and make a Confederations Cup return.
If Mexico is exposed as a country without depth in June and fails to win a continental crown in July, the extension Herrera signed after the World Cup will have less value than one of Herrera’s old Panini stickers from his mulleted playing days. He might not be fired, but he’d feel a level of pressure from directors and fans he’s yet to feel. If he has an unsuccessful summer, he may need the characteristics of the louse – the animal for which El Piojo is nicknamed.
But El Tri could also rise to the occasion, show well in Chile and make a good run in July. It could kick ass and take names – and after take selfies. Regardless, this summer may prove a stressful one for Mexico’s jovial coach.