Tata Martino is used to working in front of big audiences.
The last game he coached in Major League Soccer outdrew the Super Bowl. In the same stadium.
And in the only season he managed in Barcelona, his team played twice before crowds of more than 96,000. But at least those games counted.
His second game with the Mexican national team, Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Paraguay, was a meaningless midweek friendly in which all four Mexican goals came off defensive mistakes. Yet it drew 50,317 to a rainy Levi’s Stadium; only one other soccer game in the U.S. this year has attracted more.
Clearly Martino’s progress in rebuilding an aging Mexican team won’t pass unnoticed.
“That’s good,” said Gerardo Torrado, sporting director for the Mexican federation. “It’s not pressure. It’s trying to give satisfaction to all the people that buy a ticket and come to see the game.
“The players have to be really motivated to make their effort and leave everything on the pitch.”
The bigger motivation might be trying to win a spot on Martino’s team for June’s Gold Cup opener, Mexico’s first competitive game since the World Cup loss to Brazil that ended Juan Carlos Osorio’s time as coach.
Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos got a good start on that Tuesday, scoring his first international goal and adding an assist in the first 24 minutes.
An own goal from Paraguayan captain Gustavo Gomez three minutes later doubled the lead. Mexico then made it 3-0 after Paraguay turned the ball over at midfield, with Dos Santos taking a pass from Erick Gutierrez and pushing it forward for Chicharito Hernandez, who beat keeper Antony Silva with a right-footed shot from the spot to extend his national-team record to 51 goals.
Hernan Perez got Paraguay on the board in the 59th minute, banging a shot in off Mexican keeper Raul Gudino. The game took a turn a few minutes later when Miguel Almiron, who helped Martino win an MLS Cup at Atlanta last year, assaulted Mexico’s Jose Juan Vazquez, drawing a red card, setting off a near-brawl and leaving Paraguay to finish the game short-handed..
Paraguay’s Derlis Gonzalez and Mexico’s Luis Montes exchanged goals in the closing minutes for the final score.
Despite Dos Santos’ performance, Martino said this month’s two exhibitions will only be part of the information he uses to pick his roster going forward.
“Nobody is playing in one game for the chance to stay or go. That’s one of the questions that I’d like for my players to know,” he said in Spanish. “The future of a national team is formed by accumulating performances.
“Nobody who is in the team right now is guaranteed to be in the Gold Cup, and nobody who is out of the Gold Cup won’t be considered for the future.”
Martino is still getting to know his team after 12 weeks on the job, so he called 28 players in for his first training camp, a number he considered unwieldy but necessary given his unfamiliarity with the roster. And he has used almost everyone, calling on 16 players in the opener of his “Get Acquainted” Tour six days ago in San Diego, where Mexico beat Chile before 49,617, and using another 11 for the first time Tuesday.
The team Mexico took to Russia last summer was the second-oldest in the World Cup and the most seasoned, averaging more than 61 international appearances per player. The work of making that team younger began immediately afterward under interim coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti.
“What Tuca did was wonderful,” Torrado said. “Now we are continuing. Tata is putting his ideas on the table for the players, letting them know what he is expecting from them.”
He’s already drawing a crowd.