When Juan Carlos Osorio was hired as coach of the Mexican national team 29 months ago, his assignment was simple: put together the best roster possible for this summer’s World Cup.
He has left few stones unturned in that search, calling up more than five dozen players in the last year alone. Friday, in a 3-0 exhibition victory over Iceland, he began the difficult task of whittling that number down.
“It’s a privilege to work with this group of players,” Osorio said before the game.
Not everyone from the group will be on the plane to Russia in June, however. And with the auditions beginning to heat up, three players who made the biggest impressions Friday were goalkeeper Jesus Corona, midfielder Marco Fabian and defender Miguel Layun.
Corona, who is battling Guillermo Ochoa, a two-time World Cup veteran, for the starting job this summer, made three big saves in the first 26 minutes to keep the game scoreless. And Fabian, returning from a serious back injury that required surgery last summer, solidified his place in the midfield by curling a right-footed free kick over a five-man wall and just inside the left post in the 37th minute to give Mexico a 1-0 lead.
Playing before a pro-Mexico crowd of 68,917, Layun doubled the lead in the 64th minute, running onto a nice pass from Hirving Lozano and beating Iceland keeper Runar Alex Runarsson with a right-foot shot across the goalmouth.
Layun then closed the scoring in stoppage time with a left-footed shot from long distance that caught Runarsson off his line.
Iceland’s two most dangerous chances came in the 76th minute when Vidar Kjartansson bounced a try off the goal post seconds before a shot that beat Corona was waved off by an offside call.
“When I give anybody an opportunity it’s because I strongly believe that they need the opportunity to show that they can play. To show that they have enough talent,” Osorio said. “It’s not even a principle of a football team. It’s a principle of life.
“We human beings need a chance to prove ourselves.”
Mexico also proved it has recovered from its last game at Levi’s Stadium, the haunted house where El Tri lost to Chile, 7-0, in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Copa America, the worst defeat in the country’s long soccer history.
Iceland came into the game feeling it had something to prove too.
A Euro 2016 quarterfinalist, the country is preparing for the first World Cup in its history. And while some see that as a Cinderella story — with a population of 335,000, Iceland is the smallest country to reach the World Cup — coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said his team belongs in the tournament.
“We go in with the belief that we deserve to be there, like anyone else. Why should we think something else?” he said. “We qualified. So we have belief in ourselves. We know what we are about.”
Still, Friday’s game was a test of sorts for Hallgrimsson’s team because Mexico, with a dynamic, possession-oriented style, plays a different kind of game than Iceland is accustomed to. But it’s one the team is likely to see in its World Cup opener against Argentina.
“Their players play for big teams,” Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson said. “They’re quick, technical players with a coach who wants to win games. And it’s all about winning games.
“It’s quite similar to us. [We] have to get the results.”