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Mexico's coach aims high for the World Cup

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Miguel Herrera will be either a hero or a goat this summer. There is no other possible outcome for the coach of Mexico's national soccer team in a World Cup year.

If the team does well in Brazil, he won't have to pay for a meal for the rest of his life. If it flops, he won't be able to find a restaurant that will serve him.

But whichever way he goes, he's not going to go quietly.

"We're going to reach the final," Herrera boasted to reporters recently. "When you arrive at the top you have to keep looking up with the idea of changing everything and winning a World Cup.

"It's very difficult. But if you don't go with that dream, then why are you going?"

Mexico almost didn't go. After a momentous collapse in qualifying, it had to beat New Zealand in a two-leg playoff in November to grab the penultimate spot in the 32-team World Cup field.

Not coincidentally, those were Herrera's first two games as coach of the national team. And the team hasn't lost since.

So maybe he's justified in dreaming big.

"The pressure is strong to do something different," the former Club America coach says. "We're going with the idea that we will be successful. We know that it hasn't been a good year. But it's a new year."

That enthusiasm is already catching on, with both fans and players insisting the black cloud that shadowed the team last fall has been lifted.

"There's a lot of positive thinking again," says goalkeeper Moises Munoz, who rejoined the national team last summer after a five-year absence and became a starter under Herrera. "The way that the group is forming right now, the way the national team is integrating itself, it's quite good.

"The expectations are very high and we have to live up to them."

Sergio Tristan, an Austin, Texas, attorney and founder of Pancho Villa's Army, the largest Mexican soccer supporters group in the U.S., credits Herrera alone for that.

"It's all mentality," he says. "I don't think you've had any coach before that would tell the guys, 'What is wrong with you? Go out there and ... put some heart into the game.'

"That's what's different. The manager's perspective on how to motivate his players is greatly improved. Herrera wants to win. And he knows how to translate that to his players."

It isn't surprising that Herrera — the 11th coach Mexico has had in the last 14 years and the fourth since September — is seen as a hero. But given the constant coaching turnover, there was really no way he could lose.

Beat New Zealand, then ranked 91st in the world, and you're the guy who got Mexico to the World Cup. Lose and, well, it's not your fault. No one else won with this team either.

But Herrera wasn't exactly gambling with the house's money. According to sports marketing expert Rogelia Roa, if Mexico had failed to reach the World Cup for just the second time since 1974 it would have cost the country's soccer federation — Herrera's new bosses — as much as $600 million in lost broadcast, merchandise and sponsorship revenue. TV giant Televisa, which also owns Club America, was on the hook for $100 million by itself.

Yet despite his success, Herrera is something of an unexpected savior. A former defender who played 14 years in the Mexican league and 14 games for the national team, he spent most of his life far from Mexico City and has never been part of the inner circle of the soccer federation, an organization known for its dysfunction and cronyism.

He had enjoyed only moderate success as a coach with four Mexican clubs before being offered a six-month contract as the interim manager of Club America in the winter of 2011. That position became permanent six months later when he led the team to the playoff semifinals.

A year after that he coached Club America to its first title in 15 seasons.

As a player Herrera was known to be chippy and physical, but as a coach he has built a reputation for being fiery, plain-spoken and charismatic. One smart move by the coach was returning 35-year-old defender Rafa Marquez to the national team and handing him the captain's armband, instilling both discipline and accountability on the field while reviving Marquez's career.

Herrera is fiercely loyal as well — one reason why he summoned 10 of his former America players, including Munoz, to the national team in his five months on the job.

Taking advantage of the chemistry among players on the same club was a major factor in Mexico's wins over New Zealand — and it's an idea that has caught on elsewhere. When England met Denmark in a friendly two months ago, for example, five of its starters came from Premier League-leading Liverpool. On the same day Spain started five Barcelona players against Italy and Germany started six Bayern Munich players in its win over Chile.

Still, Herrera says he'll reinforce the Club America core of his team with players from Europe squads for the World Cup, among them Espanyol defender Hector Moreno, Manchester United's Javier Hernandez and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa from French club Ajaccio. As national team coach he has worked with those players only once, during a March friendly with Nigeria that ended in a scoreless draw. And without the benefit of the four-year run-up to the World Cup most coaches get, both sides will have to accelerate the learning process.

That may be one reason why Herrera plans to announce his final World Cup roster next week, nearly a month before the deadline.

"We have to work much faster," the coach says "in a much shorter period of time."

There is another place where the clock could also be working against Herrera. Mexico won its first Olympic title in soccer two years ago in London and has made the final in three of the last five U-17 World Cups, winning in both 2005 and 2011. And though few players from those teams are expected to make the roster for Brazil, their success does make this something of a golden era for Mexican soccer.

"We have to take advantage of that," says Herrera, who is well aware that the senior national team has never gotten past the quarterfinals — a fifth game – in the World Cup.

And given all that has happened in the last seven months, reaching the quarterfinals again would have to be considered a success, Herrera says.

But then he reconsiders and breaks into a mischievous smile. Given all that has happened in the last seven months, why not roll the dice and go for broke?

"We'd like to go the final," he says. "It's difficult, but as a team you have to go in with that mentality. A seventh game. Be the champions."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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