For a few minutes, anyway, Mexico looked to be out of the World Cup. Last month, they lost away to Costa Rica on the final day of World Cup Qualifying, and Panama scored a late goal to take a 2-1 lead over the United States. If scores held, Panama would have moved on to a World Cup playoff. It didn't happen.
The USMNT broke the hearts of Panamanians everywhere, and more than a few American ones, too, when they scored twice in stoppage time to crush Los Canaleros' World Cup hopes. Even though Mexico had just ended their pathetic group stage with a loss, they'd crawled through a back door held open by the Americans, their fiercest rivals. Their reward: New Zealand.
Mexico face the Oceania champions today at Azteca in the first leg of a home-and-home playoff, and El Tri are in shambles, even for a side that was 90 seconds away from missing a World Cup after having qualified every cycle since 1994. Miguel Herrera, "on loan" from Mexican club América, is the national team's fourth manager in the last two months. Herrera's elected to call up only Mexican league players, which means European stars like Javier Hernández, Andrés Guardado, and Giovani dos Santos will be missing out. This team is vulnerable. They could lose. But they won't.
No one's saying New Zealand won't or can't put up a fight. They're within touching distance of Brazil, too. But they're just not that good. FIFA ranks them 79th in the world, in the company of lesser CONCACAF teams like the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Mexico only won twice in the final qualifying round, but their three losses in the Hex were to the three teams that finished ahead of them.
The All Whites' roster for the playoff is also laughable. Most players on the squad for the Mexico matches make their wares playing in New Zealand or Australia's weak domestic leagues, and of the few who play in Europe, only 22-year-old midfielder Marco Rojas plays for a club in one of the continent's top five leagues. (Rojas transferred to German side Stuttgart this summer, but he's been hurt all season and has yet to make an appearance.)
Because of the weakness of the Oceania region, the country hasn't recorded a decent result against meaningful competition since the 2010 World Cup. (There, Ryan Nelsen led his side to draws against Slovakia, Italy, and Paraguay, not good enough to get out of the group stage. Nelsen's retired now, and managing MLS's Toronto FC.)
There's just nothing that points to New Zealand having a chance over two legs. This is sports, and ridiculous things happen in sports daily. In one match, maybe they could snatch a draw, or even a miracle win. But playing the first leg in Mexico City will likely prove too much to overcome. The notorious Azteca stadium will be packed with over 100,000 Mexican fans, and is over 7,000 feet above sea level. After all that, there's a Mexican team that should come out on the offensive.
Herrera's a relatively successful manager, and even though he's weakening his side's quality by controversially sitting European-based players while boosting the amount of Club América players, there's (allegedly) a good reason. Mexico's past managers have been passive and defensive, while Herrera favors a more attacking style. We should expect Mexico to come out in a very fluid, complex 5-3-2 formation. The back five consists of three center backs and two wing backs. When they defend, the wing backs will drop back, creating a wall of five players where most teams play with a back four. When they receive the ball, the center backs will push wider, and the wing backs will join the attack as wingers in a 3-5-2.
New Zealand, meanwhile, play a rigid 3-4-3, with three lines of players. It's an attacking style which differs greatly from the many variations of the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 because it sacrifices a defender or midfielder for a third forward. With six or seven players getting forward, the 3-4-3 is successful when the team can outnumber the opposing defense. But it helps to have quality midfielders and forwards who can both keep possession so the team can defend as little as possible, and find holes to exploit. It also helps to have studs shoring up the back line. New Zealand don't really have either. (West Ham defender Winston Reid, New Zealand's captain and best player, is out injured for the playoff, and 37-year-old fossil Ivan Vicelich is expected to play center back in his stead.)
The 3-4-3 doesn't match up well against Herrera's 5-3-2. The 3-4-3, when played to perfection, can be a nightmare for teams playing with four backs, because three players heading the attack make passing combinations and player movement all the more intricate. Forwards can pull defenders out of position. And if a team trots out a 3-5-2 against a 3-4-3, the forwards will be one-one-one against the opposing back line. No defense wants that.
But Herrera's wing backs give Mexico the numerical advantage on defense against New Zealand's three forwards. And on offense, Mexico's midfield should be able to possess the ball relatively easily against a 3-4-3 when those wing backs push up into an attacking 3-5-2.
About the only scenario where Mexico will be outnumbered is in the midfield when New Zealand have the ball, and El Tri drop back into the 5-3-2. But even that's not cause for concern: Though the 3-4-3 is an attacking formation, New Zealand are famously conservative. Expect them to drop off without the ball to try to escape Azteca with a point. Even without their Europeans, Mexico seem to have the manpower and tactical advantages. If Herrera can just get his squad's shit together a little bit, today's match could be a walk for Mexico.
And ultimately, that's a good thing, for you, for me, for soccer fans everywhere. Because as fun as it would've been to see Panama kick off against New Zealand, the time for drama isn't now, in the World Cup qualifiers. We'll have plenty of that next June. This is time to get the best teams and the biggest stars into the World Cup. Mexico, despite unequivocal mediocrity in qualifiers, have the better team. Mexico, even though they're leaving a couple of them at home, have the bigger stars. Come Brazil, Mexico have the better chance to make noise. Everyone hoping for a competitive, exciting World Cup should hope for Mexico to punch their ticket. So even if you hate El Tri, there's value in their making the World Cup. This team has problems, serious problems, that might not be rectified within the next seven months. A win against New Zealand could mean a chance to see America's fiercest rival fail on the world's biggest stage.