Photo: Getty

It was absolutely not a penalty.

Mexico fans suffered perhaps the greatest heartbreak of the 2014 World Cup, when Arjen Robben took a shameless dive in the 92nd minute of a tight knockout round matchup and manufactured a penalty for the Netherlands. Naturally, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar buried it and killed Mexico for good. In the intervening four years, “No era penal!” has become a rallying cry of sorts, a reminder to Mexico fans that their team deserved better and was unfairly ousted from a shot at Messi and Argentina, as well as a sign that the Mexican national team was truly cursed.

While Mexico have made every single Round of 16 since the 1994 World Cup, they’ve lost in that same round every single time. From the United States’ improbable 2-0 win in 2002 to the baffling shootout loss to Bulgaria in 1994, Mexico have crashed out in the same spot of every World Cup for 20 years. Brazil and Germany are the only other two teams to reach five straight knockout rounds, but they have three World Cups between them during those streaks, while Mexico have exactly nothing. So, yeah, they might really be cursed

So here they are, four years after that heartbreak with a similarly feisty squad. Mexico have the great misfortune of being drawn into the World Cup’s toughest group. However, while Sweden, South Korea, and Germany are all very dangerous teams, Mexico will be expected to advance. They should. Rafael Márquez is here, again, as it seems he’ll be forever. El Tri’s midfield is strong and skilled, and all the promising youngish players who led them to an undefeated trip through a tough group (which included an impressive 0-0 draw with Brazil) last World Cup have matured over the past few years. Chicharito Hernández and Carlos Vela seem like they’ve been around forever, though they’re only 30 and 29, respectively. This is a deep team that has played together for a long time, and on their day, Mexico can play with almost any team in the world. Weirdly, I trust them more than I trust much-hyped darlings like Belgium or Colombia, or outright frauds like Switzerland. Mexico are squarely in the tier below Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina, and Spain, though they feel like the right sort of team to break out and make a deep run. That is, if they can finally break that 24-year curse.

Roster

Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (Standard Liege), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), José de Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul)

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Defenders: Rafael Márquez (Atlas), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Diego Reyes (Porto), Héctor Moreno (Real Sociedad), Hugo Ayala (Tigres), Edson Álvarez (America), Jesús Gallardo (Monterrey), Miguel Layún (Sevilla)

Midfielders: Héctor Herrera (Porto), Jonathan Dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Andrés Guardado (Real Betis), Marco Fabián (Eintracht Frankfurt), Javier Aquino (Tigres)

Forwards: Javier Hernández (West Ham), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica), Oribe Peralta (America), Jesús Manuel Corona (Porto), Carlos Vela (Los Angeles FC), Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven)

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Nickname

El Tri

FIFA World Ranking

15

Manager

Juan Carlos Osorio

Players To Watch

Hirving Lozano

Of this current generation of young Mexican players trying to make it in Europe, Hirving Lozano is the most exciting. In the hotshot winger’s first season with PSV, he led the team with 17 goals and eight assists and won the Eredivisie title. His scoring record is even more impressive when you consider that he missed a total of five games for a pair of red card suspensions. It’s no surprise then that Lozano has drawn comparisons to Luis Suárez, who also came through the Eredivisie and has well-documented anger issues.

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That comparison is a bit lazy, though. Suárez is a natural striker, while the right-footed Lozano primarily plays on the left side of the field as an inverted winger. He loves to cut inside on that right foot and shoot, and he uses his speed and close control to punish fullbacks and work the ball into dangerous areas. His passing is crisp and decisive, and his finishing ability around the goal is perhaps his most well-developed skill. Dutch soccer is notorious for its wide open spaces and free-flowing offenses, so Lozano’s stats and skills are a little inflated over there. There’s no question though that he is more than just a blunt instrument speedster.

Lozano made his senior debut for Mexico club Pachuca at age 18, and scored a winner within five minutes of his debut. Given his performance for PSV last year and his recent agreement with power agent Mino Raoila, Lozano will probably be leaving the Netherlands sooner rather than later. A big World Cup with Mexico could make some of the biggest clubs in the world chase after him. In Russia, Lozano will have his first, though not his last, chance to prove he really is as good as he looks.

Miguel Layún

It’s not often that a fullback is one of a team’s most interesting players, but most teams don’t have fullbacks like Layún. He’s played at every defensive spot and all over the midfield at various stops with Serie A’s Atalanta, Liga MX’s América, the Premier League’s Watford, the Primeira Liga’s Porto, and La Liga’s Sevilla. Mexico have used him in most every position besides goalkeeper and forward. ESPN recently asked him what his favorite position was. “Being on the field,” he said.

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He’s the perfect player for Osorio then, since the Mexico manager is notorious for tinkering with his lineups and formations based on the opponent. Osorio will line up in a 3-4-3 if he feels like it, or maybe even a conventional 4-2-3-1. “I don’t have a problem saying it: to me he is a genius,” Layún said of Osorio. “And like any genius, he has different ideas that are beyond the parameters of what’s considered normal. Perhaps that’s what can be unsettling.”

One reason why Osorio can experiment so much is because Layún can comfortably play all over the field. He played both fullback spots for Sevilla this past season, but also scored on Real Madrid from the midfield. Layún will probably spend most of his time in Russia as a defender, and Osorio will empower him to go forward when he wants. Who knows, maybe he’ll be asked to play in midfield. No matter how Mexico line up, Layún will find a way to change the game.

How They Play

Like I said, Osorio can get wacky at times. The Colombian has had an impressive three years as Mexico’s leading man, inheriting the job from the irrepressibly ferocious Miguel Herrero in 2015 and winning 30 of the 46 games he’s been in charge of. The results have been there, and his team appears to be united. Still, this is the Mexican national team, and the coach will always face crushing pressure from the media. Pair Osorio’s experimental tendencies with the recent escort party scandal in Scotland, and Osorio will be facing plenty of questions in Russia.

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But all that is drama and noise, and from a soccer perspective, Osorio really seems to know what he’s doing. Depending on how much Mexico will have to defend, Osorio could roll out with two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1, which worked for Mexico against Belgium last year. If they want to make the game as wide as possible, Osorio will line his team up in a 3-4-3 diamond formation. They beat Uruguay 3-1 in the 2016 Copa América by using that exact strategy.

Osorio also likes to switch around his starting lineups, but there are a few players who you can count on to play most matches. Lozano, Layún, Andres Guardado, Héctor Moreno, Giovani dos Santos, Héctor Herrera, and Chicharito Hernández seem likely to play in most every game, with supporting players swapping around as needed. Hernández plays as a straight-up striker, and he’ll likely be supported by Lozano, and either Carlos Vela or Jesús Manuel “Tecatito” Corona.

Group F Fixtures

June 17, 11 a.m.: Mexico vs. Germany at Luzhniki Stadium

June 23, 11 a.m.: Mexico vs. South Korea at Rostov Arena

June 27, 10 a.m.: Mexico vs. Sweden at Ekaterinburg Arena