The first step toward being fired as coach of the Mexican national team is being hired as coach of the Mexican national team. One follows the other as clearly as night follows day — and sometimes it happens almost as quickly.
Consider that Luis Fernando Tena had the job for less than four days in 2013, and he might not have lasted that long had the team not been in the midst of World Cup qualifying. So Juan Carlos Osorio knew exactly what he was getting into when he became Mexico’s manager 2½ years ago.
“There are no secrets,” he said. “As for me looking over my shoulder, that hasn’t changed. It will always be like that.”
If soccer is the national sport in Mexico, criticizing the national team coach is a close second, which is why El Tri has had 12 managers over the last dozen years. Germany, the current world champion, has had one during that same period.
Osorio has done what most of the others have struggled to do: He’s won. Big.
In the last 80 years, only one Mexican manager — Osorio — has coached more than 15 games and won more than two-thirds of them. He was unbeaten through his first 10 games, coached Mexico into the quarterfinals of the Copa America and into the semifinals of the Confederations Cup.
His reward back home? A hashtag rebellion on social media. #FueraOsorio.
Yet the coach might wind up having the last laugh, one that could have him chuckling his way back to the U.S., where his coaching career began 20 years ago.
The team Osorio will take into next month’s World Cup is probably Mexico’s strongest ever, one that will begin its final push toward Russia on Monday when its faces Wales at the Rose Bowl in one of two tuneup matches. A crowd of more 70,000 is expected.
The provisional roster Osorio has assembled includes Mexico’s all-time leading scorer in Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and one of the most-capped players ever in Rafa Marquez, who is bidding to play in a fifth World Cup. It has the brightest gems — Carlos Vela, Hector Moreno, Gio dos Santos, Marco Fabian — from a Golden Generation that brought the country two U-17 world championships and an Olympic title. And it has 13 players signed to major European teams, more than four times the number its 2006 World Cup team had.
“The base of the group is the same,” Vela said in Spanish. “There’s a great generation of players that is looking to take that next jump. And we hope it comes in Russia.”
“We want to play the fifth game, and then more,” Vela said. “[But] it’s not only about this game. We want a great World Cup. And if we want a great World Cup, we have to dream high.”
Orosio is dreaming high too.
“I agree with the players,” he said. “We have a right to shine and believe we can go to the final.”
This is where that “last laugh” part comes in. If Mexico makes it to the final, or even to just a fifth game — and there will be victory parades for either — Osorio might not attend the celebration. Tired of the constant sniping from fans and the media, Osorio turned down a contract extension from the Mexican federation last winter and has already begun talking to other national and club teams.
“I am very aware of the situation and the situation is very simple,” he said. “If we do have a good World Cup, we might get the same offer. If we don’t go a good job, I don’t need anybody to tell me what I have to do.
“There are other nations, other countries, other clubs that have approached me. And for different reasons I cannot just ignore that. I have to keep working. My soul and heart are committed to the Mexican national team right now. But we will see what happens after the World Cup.”
Osorio is known in soccer terms as a “tinkerer” — and that’s not meant as a compliment. A tinkerer, who by definition frequently changes lineups and tactics, is a bold affront to a sport hidebound by tradition. In Osorio’s case, the tinkering involves squad rotation, altering his personnel for tactical purposes.
Against a team that is proficient in the air, for example, Osorio will start a tall lineup. In the next game, many of those players might be on the bench. Though that’s proven controversial to fans at home, it’s worked for Osorio, whose ideas are always deeply thought out.
“I call him, in a way, like a genius because they live in a completely different world than ourselves,” Hernandez said. “About football he has a lot of knowledge that even if you can speak five minutes with him about one game or one player, he gives you the way he sees football and the way he sees that player, and it’s knowledge that you can learn if you want.”
With graying hair, thin-framed glasses and a large vocabulary, in English and Spanish and even Latin — he dropped “sui generis” into a conversation Friday — Osorio has a professorial air, one he augments by keeping a binder at his side at all times, frequently stopping to jot down thoughts or observations as they come to him.
Over the winter, during a business trip through Europe, he read a passage about famed Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson adding a “sleep coach” to his staff. Osorio now plans to take one to Russia.
After devouring a detailed study about the devastating impact that soft-tissue injuries had on teams in the 2014 World Cup, Osorio hired Galaxy chiropractor George Billauer as well as a masseuse and a therapist
“There are managers that can manage the locker room. There are other managers that can direct a team on game day,” Osorio said. “I can do all that. [But] the thing that I enjoy the most is training, training players to become better on a daily basis.”
If Osorio does leave Mexico — and he said he hasn’t closed the door either way — he has made no secret of the fact he’d like to land in the U.S., long his second home. After emigrating from his native Colombia he played at the University of New Haven and studied at Southern Connecticut State.
He also coached here, first with the now-defunct Staten Island Vipers, then in MLS with the MetroStars, the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls. His sons, born in Queens, are U.S. citizens. And, not coincidentally, the U.S. national team will be looking for a coach when Dave Sarachan’s contract as interim manager expires at the end of June.
“I got my job, my opportunity here. So I am very thankful to the United States,” Osorio said. “I admire this league. I admire this country.
“Whoever gets [the job], it will be a fantastic opportunity to set up a good youth program and a good national team. I am not different from many other managers. I see the U.S. job as a very appealing one.”
A U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman confirmed Osorio will receive consideration as part of what was termed “a very wide search.”
Nothing is likely to happen until after the World Cup, which for Osorio looks to be something of a no-win situation. If Mexico makes it to the fifth game or beyond, it will be because he was lucky enough to coach the best team in the nation’s history. If Mexico falls short — El Tri faces a tough draw, playing Germany, Sweden and an injury-weakened South Korea in group play before a likely matchup with Brazil in the knockout stage — the blame will fall squarely on the coach.
“It will always be like that,” he said. “Right now for me, but in the future for any other manager, because that’s just the way the media is in Mexico.”
Herculez Gomez, a former U.S. national team player turned ESPN analyst, agrees. Gomez spent much of his career in the Mexican league, where he witnessed both the growth of the national team and the passion of its supporters.
“This is the most talented team on paper,” he said. “This team can make a run. But this team gets in its own way. The Mexican people get in their own way.
“There isn’t a harsher critic, a bigger enemy for Mexico than Mexico. It’s that simple.”