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Mexico begins World Cup preparations with its eyes on the big prize

Mexico has qualified for the last seven World Cups, something only five other nations have done. El Tri, however, is the only one of the teams that was eliminated in the fourth game each time.

And that’s made getting over that speed bump and into the quarterfinals a goal for this summer’s tournament in Russia.

“It’s huge. It’s the main target for everybody,” coach Juan Carlos Osorio said of an elusive fifth game. “Even if we address it in other words, at the end of the day it’s going after that game.”

“But,” Osorio added, “I think it’s a bad thing.”

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Bad because it’s not aspirational enough. So three months before the World Cup opener, Osorio is challenging his players to aim higher. And it’s a message that is beginning to catch on.

“To achieve great things you have to have great goals,” forward Raul Jimenez said Thursday. “If you’re thinking only about passing to the next round or getting to the fifth game, you’re shorting yourself and you’re not going to accomplish anything.”

Team leaders such as Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andres Guardado have made the same point recently, urging their teammates to focus on winning the World Cup, not just competing in it.

“We when talk as a team, we’re on the same page,” Jimenez said in Spanish. “We’re thinking of great things, of being the world champions. We have the capacity to do that.”

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Mexico will begin its preparations for this summer’s tournament Friday when it meets Iceland, a World Cup debutante, in Santa Clara (FS1, UDN, 7:30 p.m.) A pro-Mexico crowd of more than 65,000 is expected at Levi’s Stadium where, less than two years ago, Mexico was pounded by Chile 7-0 in the Copa America quarterfinals, the worst loss in national team history.

Osorio said that game taught him some valuable, if painful, lessons — and may have fueled his team’s new World Cup ambitions.

“The most important thing in any crisis is to recreate the accident,” the coach said. “And then in order to learn from it, you have to understand [it]. And that was the first thing I did. Recreate and understand.

“I’m glad that that happened. I learned something in a way that I wasn’t expected to learn. But it happened and that’s part of life.”

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Mexico, already without the Galaxy duo of Jonathan and Gio dos Santos because of injuries, also will be without two other midfielders Friday in Guardado and Hector Herrera. Guardado may return in time for next week’s game against Croatia at Arlington, Texas.

While Mexico is talking openly about winning the World Cup, Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrímsson continues to deflect pressure from his team by touting his tiny country’s underdog status. With a population of only 335,000 — making it slightly smaller than Anaheim — Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup. And Hallgrimsson talks as if he’s just happy to be there.

“Let’s keep it that way,” he said.

In reality, however, Iceland’s invitation to Russia was well-earned. The country nearly qualified for the 2014 World Cup, then put together a four-game unbeaten streak in the 2016 Euros that included a victory over England and a draw against eventual champion Portugal.

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“These guys have been playing consistently well for six years,” Hallgrimsson said. “We’ve beaten really good football nationals. Credit to the players. That have been improving individually and as a team.”

Iceland’s two-game U.S. tour — it will play Peru, another World Cup qualifier, next week in New Jersey — is intended to continue that improvement. Not only will the team be playing in large stadiums in front of hostile crowds, but it will be playing against Latin American teams in preparation for a World Cup opener against Argentina.

“They will play a different style from the teams we are used to playing in Europe,” Hallgrimsson said of Mexico and Peru. “It’s more an individual style.”

“We haven’t played teams from outside [Europe] with the regular squad for six years probably,” added Hallgrimsson, whose defense-minded team is excellent on set pieces. “So it will be a good test for us.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11


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