So begins the exciting yet uneasy countdown to Qatar 2022 for the Mexico men's national team, who aren't in the best run of form with two wins in their last seven games. With criticism surrounding El Tri due to a rocky run through World Cup qualifying and sluggish performances this year, manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino and his squad took one step forward and two steps back this month in California-based World Cup warmup friendlies after narrowly defeating Peru 1-0 and collapsing against Colombia in a 3-2 defeat.
Injuries have complicated the matter, leaving Mexico with plenty of unknowns, as key attacking starters like Sevilla's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona and Wolves' Raul Jimenez will be racing to recover in time for their tournament kick-off on Nov. 22 against Poland. While Jimenez seems to have enough time to regain his fitness, Corona's chances appear slim and he will be re-evaluated in early October by Mexico's medical staff.
So, with time running out until the World Cup starts, who is in the running for the 26-man roster for Martino? For the sake of argument and for reviewing the full roster, we'll consider players with short-term injuries for roster spots but leave out Corona due to the unlikelihood that he'll be fit for Qatar.
How we're doing this
With Martino's proclivity for a 4-3-3 formation, we're splitting up the analysis through six position categories that will each have four tiers. The tiers are influenced by players' form for club and country, their importance to the national team and a variety of other factors.
Tier 1: Projected starter. Roster locks and players who are clear starters in their positions.
Tier 2: World Cup contributor. Players expected to be on the roster and contribute on the field, either as a starter or substitute.
Tier 3: Roster bubble. In contention to be on the 26-man squad and provide roster depth.
Tier 4: Not this time. Players who have been around the team but likely won't receive much of a look for inclusion.
Tier 1: Guillermo Ochoa (Club America)
Tier 2: Alfredo Talavera (FC Juarez), Rodolfo Cota (Leon)
Tier 3: Carlos Acevedo (Santos Laguna)
Tier 4: Luis Malagon (Necaxa), David Ochoa (D.C. United), Jonathan Orozco (Club Tijuana)
It's Ochoa and then everyone else. Mexico's go-to starting goalkeeper for the 2014 and 2018 editions of the World Cup will once again be the No. 1 between the posts in Qatar for El Tri. Although he turned 37 in July, the Club America star was one of the more influential figures for Mexico in World Cup qualifying.
With goalkeepers, Martino tends to focus on veteran options, which is why it wasn't much of a surprise to see him include 35-year-old Cota and 40-year-old Talavera as the last two of the three training for Mexico's recent friendlies. Cota has had a good season so far with Leon, while Talavera brings a wealth of experience. That said, we can't rule out Acevedo just yet. Despite the fact that the 26-year-old was left out of the latest call-up, he has a higher ceiling than both Talavera and Cota, and has also started three games in 2022 for El Tri. A strong finish in the Apertura season -- in which he has been one of the more impressive goalkeepers of the tournament -- could be enough to surpass Talavera or Cota.
Projected selections: Ochoa, Talavera, Cota
Tier 1: Jorge Sanchez (Ajax), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey)
Tier 2: Kevin Alvarez (Pachuca), Gerardo Arteaga (Genk)
Tier 3: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), Emilio Lara (Club America), Luis Reyes (Atlas), Erick Aguirre (Monterrey)
Tier 4: Luis Rodriguez (Tigres), Osvaldo Rodriguez (Leon), Salvador Reyes (Club America)
A recent boost in form will keep Gallardo as the current starter at left-back, but Arteaga isn't too far behind. Assuming he's back to full fitness soon, Sanchez should be set to be Mexico's starting right-back. Up-and-coming Pachuca star Alvarez had a chance to make a case for himself at right-back in the latest international break, but unfortunately was a weak link in defence against Colombia.
The two players who likely benefited the most from Alvarez's worrisome performance are LA Galaxy's Araujo and Club America's Lara. It would be a drastic and last-minute switch, but it wouldn't be surprising if Martino sought to avoid more of Alvarez's mistakes and brought in Lara and Araujo, who were both absent from the latest Mexico roster.
Left-backs Reyes and Aguirre are worthy of a shout for their versatility, as they can fill a number of positions in the XI. More than likely though, they would be bench options for Martino at best.
Projected selections: Sanchez, Alvarez, Gallardo, Arteaga
Tier 1: Hector Moreno (Monterrey)
Tier 2: Nestor Araujo (Club America), Cesar Montes (Monterrey)
Tier 3: Johan Vasquez (Cremonese), Jesus Alberto Angulo (Tigres)
Tier 4: Israel Reyes (Puebla), Julio Dominguez (Cruz Azul), Luis Olivas (Chivas), Arturo Ortiz (Pumas)
Only one central defender was given a start in both of Mexico's recent friendlies: Moreno. The 34-year-old doesn't have the pace he once had, but his leadership, distribution and aerial ability will make him a guaranteed starter in the World Cup.
Alongside him, it's up to Martino to either choose a more agile option with an eye for long passes, like Montes, or a more aggressive and powerful partner in Araujo. On paper, Vasquez should be a Tier 2 player, but his lack of minutes in Mexico's latest friendlies and issues with cementing a starting role in Serie A with Cremonese could hurt his chances. Tigres' Angulo has been a key figure for his club but, like Vasquez, he didn't earn any minutes in the international break. The good news for both of them is that without a consistent starting defensive partnership solidified just yet, Martino may want to keep his options open and take five central defenders.
Projected selections: Moreno, Araujo, Montes, Vasquez, Angulo
Gomez: Mexico have knocked it out the park with new kit
Herc Gomez can't hide his love for the new Mexico away kit and training jacket.
Tier 1: Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Hector Herrera (Houston Dynamo), Edson Alvarez (Ajax)
Tier 2: Luis Chavez (Pachuca), Carlos Rodriguez (Cruz Azul), Erick Gutierrez (PSV Eindhoven)
Tier 3: Erick Sanchez (Pachuca), Luis Romo (Monterrey), Fernando Beltran (Chivas), Sebastian Cordova (Tigres)
Tier 4: Marcelo Flores (Real Oviedo), Erik Lira (Cruz Azul), Alfonso Gonzalez (Monterrey)
One of the easier things to predict in a best XI for Mexico is captain Guardado as the left central midfielder, Herrera as the right central midfielder, and the ever-reliable Alvarez sitting in the middle as the defensive midfielder. The problem is, that's not the most mobile setup for Mexico, leading Martino to tinker with younger attacking midfielders like Gutierrez, Chavez, Rodriguez and Sanchez.
We may have even seen a sign of Mexico mixing things up earlier this month in what looked more like a 4-2-3-1 with Guardado and Gutierrez as two DMs and Rodriguez as a pure No. 10. Erick Sanchez was also involved in this mix-and-match, but it was telling that he wasn't able to earn a place in the XI during the recent friendlies. As for Romo, who was once the No. 2 option for DM behind Alvarez, a recent injury won't help his drop in form for club and country -- especially when Guardado, Herrera and Gutierrez can also play as a DM if needed.
Beltran remains a long shot after being left on the bench for the entirety of the international break, and as for Cordova, it might be too little too late, despite the fact he has suddenly found some form with Tigres in the Apertura. A quick shout-out for Flores as well. The 18-year-old Arsenal academy product, who is on loan at Real Oviedo, unquestionably has the skillset to be a Mexico star one day, but it still might be too early for him to deal with the responsibility of a World Cup. Though it's not out of the ordinary for national teams to bring in a rising star or two into their rosters...
Projected selections: Guardado, Herrera, Gutierrez, Chavez, Rodriguez, Alvarez
Tier 1: Hirving Lozano (Napoli)
Tier 2: Alexis Vega (Chivas), Uriel Antuna (Cruz Azul)
Tier 3: Orbelin Pineda (AEK Athens), Diego Lainez (Braga), Roberto Alvarado (Chivas)
Tier 4: Alejandro Zendejas (Club America), Jordan Carrillo (Sporting Gijon), Rodolfo Pizarro (Monterrey), Carlos Vela (LAFC)
Assuming Corona doesn't defy the odds and make a recovery before the World Cup -- and that Vela doesn't defy even higher odds and decide that he wants to go to the World Cup -- Mexico will have one winger spot guaranteed for Lozano, leaving a three-to-five player race open for the second starting position.
Vega was brilliant as a goal scorer and distributor for Mexico vs. Colombia and could easily be a starter on the left wing if Martino moves Lozano over to the right. Meanwhile, Antuna brings a uniquely direct and counter-attacking style of play to El Tri's frontline, making him a backup at the very least.
Pineda and Lainez are also in the conversation. Pineda has been thriving abroad with AEK Athens and is an ideal game-changer off the bench with his creative play. Lainez, currently with Braga, is a player with the most risk-taking Corona-like characteristics, although Martino would likely prefer for him to secure a starting role with Braga in Portugal before the World Cup.
Alvarado is an interesting option as well. Martino gave him a start, with the idea that he would help with more build-up and playmaking, but he wasn't as decisive or influential as needed. Unfortunately for fans of Zendejas, controversy behind the scenes regarding his national team status has kept him out of recent call-ups. The 24-year-old Mexican-American has been one of the top players in Liga MX this season, but must first settle problems regarding his documentation that have seen him left out of the picture.
Projected selections: Lozano, Vega, Pineda, Antuna, Lainez
Gomez: Tecatito Corona's injury a massive loss for Mexico
Herculez Gomez wonders how Mexico will replace the injured Tecatito Corona in their World Cup squad.
Tier 2: Raul Jimenez (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Henry Martin (Club America), Santiago Gimenez (Feyenoord)
Tier 3: Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey)
Tier 4: Javier Hernandez (LA Galaxy), Eduardo Aguirre (Santos Laguna), Angel Zaldivar (Chivas)
Typically this would be an easy answer, with Jimenez at Tier 1 and the rest of the forward options scrambling for a backup role. But with less than two months to go until the World Cup, and Jimenez's ongoing injury, there's plenty of room for movement.
If Jimenez isn't ready, that then leaves an open spot for in-form strikers like Club America's Martin and Feyenoord's Gimenez. Martin has the upper hand with more experience and a fantastic goal-scoring rate in Liga MX this season, but we also can't ignore the blistering start that the 21-year-old Gimenez has had abroad in the Eredivisie. Continued goals for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie and the Europa League might force Martino to place Gimenez into a World Cup XI.
Funes Mori is another candidate, but one that has had setbacks with injuries and a lack of goals in the several occasions that El Tri has given him a chance in the frontline. Hernandez, who is Mexico's all-time leading goal scorer, should be in the conversation, but Martino has made it clear a number of times that he has no intention to bring back the star who last played for his country in 2019.
Projected selections: Jimenez, Martin, Gimenez
Projected 26-man squad in full
Goalkeepers (3): Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, Rodolfo Cota
Defenders (9): Jorge Sanchez, Kevin Alvarez, Jesus Gallardo, Gerardo Arteaga, Hector Moreno, Nestor Araujo, Cesar Montes, Johan Vasquez, Jesus Angulo
Midfielders (6): Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, Erick Gutierrez, Luis Chavez, Carlos Rodriguez, Edson Alvarez
Wingers (5): Hirving Lozano, Alexis Vega, Orbelin Pineda, Uriel Antuna, Diego Lainez
Strikers (3): Raul Jimenez, Henry Martin, Santiago Gimenez