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With Golden Generation turning gray, Mexico looks to youth for its future

With Golden Generation turning gray, Mexico looks to youth for its future
Mexico's forward Carlos Vela, right, celebrates with teammate Marco Fabian after scoring against the U.S. during their 2018 World Cup CONCACAF qualifier match, in Mexico City on June 11, 2017. (Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images)

When Mexico exited last summer’s World Cup in the round of 16 it not only extended El Tri’s record for underachievement at the tournament to seven consecutive editions, but it slammed the window shut on a Golden Generation of players that were arguably the country’s best ever.

It was a generation that featured Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos and Hector Moreno, who gave Mexico its first major international title in the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru. And Oribe Peralta, whose two goals won Mexico an Olympic title seven years later in London.

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But they never got past a fourth game in a World Cup and all four will be at least 33 when the tournament next kicks off in Qatar in 2022. The same goes for captain Andres Guardado, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time scoring leader.

None may get another chance at a World Cup since Mexico, like the U.S., has turned the start of the new cycle into an open audition for young talent under an interim manager. Seventeen of the 26 players called up for Thursday’s friendly with Costa Rica have 10 or fewer international caps. Ten have yet to celebrate their 24th birthday.

“This chance that we have right now,” said Guillermo Cantu, sporting director of the Mexican soccer federation, “we won’t get it again.”

The need to remake the roster was evident even before Mexico boarded its flight home from Russia. Nine of the 23 players on the World Cup roster were at least 30. Eight others will be that old by Qatar.

So when Juan Carlos Osorio stepped down as manager in late July, the federation gave veteran club coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti the job on an interim basis and embarked on a youth movement.

“When we talked about the possibility, he loved it,” Cantu said of Ferretti. “He’s at a point in his career where he’s accomplished almost everything and he wants to leave behind a legacy. And the legacy is to start the renovation.

“Coaches, they tend to protect their reputation. Having Ferretti like this, with young players, is a great opportunity. We need to take advantage of that.”

The early results have been encouraging on the field, if not the scoreboard. Although Mexico started the new World Cup cycle with losses to Uruguay and the U.S. – running its losing streak to four games dating to late June, its longest slide in more than a decade – there have been some encouraging performances.

Diego Lainez, a diminutive 18-year-old midfielder with Club America who will miss this month’s games with an ankle injury, made his national team debut in September and was especially impressive against the U.S. So was Roberto Alvarado, a 20-year-old midfielder, while Edson Alvarez, a versatile 20-year-old defender, played in all four of Mexico’s World Cup matches and has a chance to become a major back-line presence.

Others for whom the federation has high hopes include Chivas goalkeeper Raul Gudiño, 22, who has yet to appear in an international game, and Santos Laguna defender Jesus Angulo, 20, who made his Mexico debut in the loss to Uruguay.

“We don’t really care right now about the final score. We’d like to see the development of some of these players,” said Cantu, who added that the federation is looking not only toward Qatar but also to the World Cup in 2026, when Mexico will share host duties with the U.S. and Canada.

As a result the makeover will be a methodical one, with some of Mexico’s younger World Cup veterans – among them forwards Hirving Lozano and Jesus Manuel Corona – returning from Europe this week to help with the transition. Defender Carlos Salcedo will be added to that mix when he returns from an ankle injury.

“It’s the right moment,” Salcedo, 25, said by phone from Germany, where he plays for Frankfurt. “I hope you can actually have those [veterans] teach the new generation like they did with me when I started with the full national team.

“Thank God I got to play in the World Cup so I can tell these guys what it is about.”

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Vela agreed, although his long-term future with the national team may be more tenuous at age 29.

“It’s very important for Mexican football [to] start to get the new talent, to try to give confidence,” said Vela, captain of the Los Angeles Football Club. “They are very good players. They have a lot to prove because they are young.”

Exactly whose job it will be to follow Ferretti in molding that talent remains uncertain. Yon de Luisa, president of the Mexican federation, said last month the group has spoken with more than 20 candidates for its coaching vacancy. Former Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, now with Atlanta United, is believed to be the favorite although he said he won’t discuss his future publicly until after the MLS season.

Other big names that have been mentioned include Carlos Queiroz, who has managed in three World Cups with Iran and Portugal, and longtime Spanish club coach Quique Setien.

“We’re in no rush,” Cantu said of the coaching search. “We need to take our time. It’s an important decision and we don’t want to hurry.”

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