Torre

After day of speculation, de la Torre keeps his job with Mexico

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If you checked in to social media this morning, you would have assumed Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre had been fired as Mexican national team coach. And when ESPN Deportes was briefly broadcasting Tomas Boy’s appointment as interim coach across their bottom third, you would have had confirmation. Yet throughout the day, there was a lively debate as to whether the initial reports were accurate, with some of the vast array of reporters beneath the Deportes umbrella issuing conflicting reports on Twitter – an editorial process implicitly erupting into the digital universe.

This evening, however, the Mexican Federation put all speculation to rest, confirming in a somewhat bizarre press conference that de le Torre is and will remain the coach.

The official word from the Federation’s website, which described the session the federation’s president and technical director held late Monday:

“This afternoon, after a meeting with Mexican soccer’s Sports Development Committee, the President of the Mexican Football Federation confirmed for the media the retention of Jose Manuel de la Torre as head coach of the Mexican national team.”

The man who led the session, president Justino Campeón, went on to describe meetings that were held between the national team director (Hector González Iñarritu), de la Torre, and de la Torre’s staff, conversations prompted by Mexico’s Gold Cup performance and the team’s inability to advance at the Confederations Cup.  Only after those meetings did the development committee some to the conclusion to retain de la Torre.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some stern words for Mexico’s coach. Iñarritu acknowledged the team is currently in a “difficult state” and the summer’s “objectives were not achieved.” Campeón went on to note the decision does “not at all justify the situation we are in,” and there’s “no excuse” for the team’s state.

That’s not the most ringing endorsement. In fact, Campeón went on to acknowledge de la Torre’s failure when calling this “a second chance,” saying the coach’s integrity and professionalism had earned it. At the same time, Campeón declined to say whether de la Torre would be judged on the Sept. 6 qualifier against Honduras, instead noting he sees de la Torre’s job in terms of 10 games (the entire final round of qualifying) instead of one.

It was a surreal way to end a surreal day. At one point this morning, de la Torre was proclaimed fired by a major cable channel. By the end of the day, the president of the FMF was speaking to reporters, and not with the typical overcooked bravado we’re used to seeing in empty votes of confidence. This was not a vote of confidence at all; rather, it was a honest reflection of where Mexico stands.

The main problems is many Tri fans won’t agree. For each person you find that feels Chepo deserves more time or the time isn’t available to switch mid-stream, you’ll find at least one person that thinks de la Torre’s current failures are enough, be they in World Cup Qualifying, the Confederations Cup, or the Gold Cup.

Now Chepo gets the chance to prove one group wrong.

Gold Cup: Two Torres goals give Panama first win over Mexico

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The first day of Gold Cup action finished the job it started with Martinique’s upset of Canada, flipping Group A on its head late Sunday night when Panama recorded their ever victory over Mexico. Two goals from Gabriel Torres sandwiching a late first half equalizer from Marco Fabian gave the Canaleros a 2-1 win, leaving them first place in Group A ahead of Martinique on goal difference after the tournament’s first day.

An early penalty kick drawn by Alberto Quintero was converted by Torres to give Panama a seventh minute opener, a lead that held up until just before halftime. In the second minute of first half stoppage time, Fabian converted a pass from Israel Jimenez, leveling for Mexico minutes after Panama had hit the post.

Three minutes into the second half, Torres cut off a cross from Quintero to beat Jonathan Orozco missed post, redirecting Panama to the 2-1 lead they’d take to the final whistle. In front of a partisan crowd of over 70,000 at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, Mexico had suffered a historic loss, their first in Gold Cup play since the 2007 final.

It was the first time Panama had ever beaten Mexico in 11 competitive matches, and while Mexico did not select a full strength squad after last month’s Confederations Cup, the loss is bound to increase the seemingly perpetual heat on El Tri head coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. Favorites going into the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Mexico has won once in The Hex’s first six rounds, following up their qualifying struggles by failing to get out of their Confederations Cup group. Without a noticeable uptick in goal scoring for a team that’s struggled to break down opposing defenses, de la Torre’s job will continue to be the subject of debate.

With the win, Panama is in position to claim first in Group A, the team due to be favorites in their final group matches against Martinique and Canada. Against the same teams, Mexico will also be favored and should still move through into the quarterfinals, with even a second place finish in their group set to keep them on the opposite side of the knockout round draw from the United States.

Chepo’s still a cloudy picture as Mexico returns from Brazil

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Broadly, your choice to replace a coach falls into one of two categories:

1.) You can get somebody better. Be it for soccer reasons, their personality, or some other compromising circumstance, you decide the person you have isn’t as good as the person you could get. Despite strong results, this is ultimately what U.S. Soccer chose to do with Bob Bradley.

2.) Yes, in another situation, your replacement might be a worse option, but something about the way your current guy fits with the squad means its time for a change. See San Jose’s recent divorce from Frank Yallop.

The first category’s the easy one. You know something is lacking, you’re confident the coach is part of the problem, and with another man in mind, you make the call. Even if it doesn’t work out, you can move forward in the knowledge you’re making a proactive, confident choice.

After their team’s performance at the Confederations Cup, Mexico still find themselves closer to situation number two, unsure whether they’ve reached a point where change for change’s sake is worth it. In Brazil, the team showed some improvement over their World Cup qualifying form, but the squad is still underperforming. Whereas a clicking Mexico would have competed with Italy for second in their group, the team ended the tournament fighting for third against Japan.

That high standard — expected to be notable better than a strong Asian champion — defines the perceived limbo of Chepo de la Torre, a man whose abilities have been proven at both club and international level. When Javier Aguirre left the team after the last World Cup, de la Torre’s record in Mexico made him a clear frontrunner for the job. That status was validated a year later when El Tri showed unprecedented dominance in winning the 2011 Gold Cup. The man can clearly not only coach, he can coach this team.

That’s what makes the FMF’s evaluation so difficult. As de la Torre said in Brazil, it doesn’t matter if you finish first, second, or third in in qualifying. Everybody makes it to the World Cup on even footing, yet results are the only way to judge how a team is evolving ahead of that goal. And if Mexico’s evolution is judged by their one win in six CONCACAF qualifiers or their step back from their Gold Cup form, they’re evolving the wrong way.

Is Chepo doing anything wrong? Perhaps. He seems out of ideas, and the changes he’s making to the team seem more like grasping at straws than a reflection of coherent plan. He’s reluctant to move away from playing Javier Hernández as part of a tandem, has been unable to get Gio dos Santos back to his Gold Cup effectiveness, and doesn’t have a solution for teams sitting back and waiting to hit them on the counter. The end result is a lack of goals, a series of draws, and doubts about Mexico’s direction.

If those doubts go away with a new coach, whether you think he’s better than de la Torre or not, you make the move. And maybe, after three years on the job, de la Torre’s no longer able to motivate his players and needs to move on. Maybe Mexico needs a man who will finally bring back Carlos Vela? Or maybe, with these particularly players, Chepo really is out of ideas.

But if you’re really switching coach just to shake things up, you have to be very, very careful. Because  with Chepo, if it doesn’t work, you may have just let the best man for the job walk out the door.

Slow start leaves Mexico to defuse their own soccer crisis

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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.