It was a strange year for international soccer. The year before a World Cup always seems a little insignificant. We'll remember what happens in 2018 forever like we've done with the World Cups that have come before it.
There was, however, a lot happening in 2017. For one, teams had to actually qualify for the 2018 showcase — something that nations like the United States, Netherlands, Chile, Italy and Ghana were reminded doesn't happen automatically. Mexico waltzed to qualification but had its own struggles to deal with teams like Germany and Portugal in the Confederations Cup.
Let's look back on the year that was for El Tri — the good, the bad and the things we can't quite categorize until we see the new year shakes out:
What we said then: "It ... has been an overwhelmingly positive qualification campaign from El Tri and (will) likely keep (Juan Carlos) Osorio free from the intense magnifying glass that is the Mexican press until the moment of truth arrives this summer."
In hindsight ... El Tri fell just short of the best-ever Hexagonal with a defeat in San Pedro Sula on the final matchday. Even though they ended the cycle with one blemish, though, it still was a remarkable run for Mexico to dominate the group like it did.
Believe it or not, it's the first time Mexico won the Hex since 1998. That may be a long time to think back on, but you only need to remember four years ago when Mexico needed a miracle on the final day of qualification plus a playoff victory to confirm its spot in Brazil. This time around rather than being the final team to book its place, Mexico was among the first. It's a credit to Osorio and will stand out as one of the highlights of the year.
What we said then: "'El Chucky' scored two lovely goals Friday in a 3-3 draw with Belgium, continuing his incredible start to the 2017-18 campaign and solidifying his place as a bona fide star for El Tri."
In hindsight ... Hirving Lozano hasn't been exceptional only when wearing green in Europe this season. Yes, his game against Belgium and cameo in the subsequent friendly against Poland shored up his status as a player the national team can depend on. He's been that as well for PSV. Often it takes players time to adapt to their new surroundings when they go to a new league, that's even more true for a player leaving home to go to another continent for the first time.
Those issues have not slowed Lozano. He has 11 goals in 16 matches, putting him tied atop the Eredivisie at the winter break. That has turned heads in some of Europe's biggest leagues, and links to Arsenal and Liverpool sound less and less ludicrous.
What we said then: "While Belgium's rapid attack and quick transitions required Mexico to hang with the Red Devils in an open game, Monday's contest (against Poland) was much more closed ... It was an intelligent game requiring more patience and tact than Friday's goal-fest. Over the balance of the trip, Mexico showed it can play different styles and do so against top teams."
In hindsight ... A friendly draw against Belgium and a win over Poland are Mexico's most recent games. March will bring another pair of friendly matches but may not be a difficult as heading to Europe and taking on top-ten teams in their own stadiums. Poland specifically was missing a few of its top stars but so too was Mexico.
The results gave El Tri something to hang their hat on at the World Cup draw. Sure, the competition will be stiff in Russia but Mexico already have proved it can play with two of Europe's best teams. Now there's something to point to as past success after qualification and something to build on in the first months of 2018.
What we said then: "This may be a difficult truth to swallow, but not wanting to hear something doesn't make it not true. Mexico is not among the elite. It wouldn't be among the elite if Miguel Herrera or Tuca Ferretti or Pep Guardiola or Marcelo Bielsa or you or I were the coach. Mexico is a very good team, the best in CONCACAF and able to get results like the 2-2 draw against European champion Portugal to open the tournament. It is not in the top echelon of teams, teams that win FIFA tournaments."
In hindsight ... Mexico will have to prove itself to enter into that upper echelon. We went on to talk about processes, how advanced Germany's is after years of investing in the same project and how Mexico continues to hit the reset button. Osorio made it through the rocky summer and now will have several months to make sure his team understands the ideas he wants to implement. The goal is to have a successful World Cup, not simply getting out of the group but making and surpassing the fifth game.
To have any chance to do that, the defense will have to be a much better unit than it was at 2017's Confederations Cup. Osorio often points to injuries to Carlos Salcedo and Diego Reyes derailing things in that tournament. Both players would've helped in the latter stages but neither is an obvious answer at right back and in that same tournament Oswaldo Alanis continually was exposed as a player who is not good enough for the top level — or definitely isn't at left back at least.
What we said then: "Osorio stuck with his word and entered the quarterfinal match against Honduras with the same team he began the tournament with. El Tri only trailed once during their Gold Cup run, and that came in the 88th minute of their heartbreaking loss to the Reggae Boyz, after Kemar Lawrence hit a beautiful free kick past Jesus Corona."
In hindsight ... I'm not sure anybody cared all that much about Mexico's Gold Cup. It was an afterthought for most fans after the Confederations Cup, and while it gave Mexico's depth players a chance to make a case for inclusion going forward, nobody in the Mexico setup seemed all that concerned either. The team lost Alan Pulido to an injury before the tournament and struggled to score with Elias Hernandez or Erick "Cubo" Torres leading the attack.
This probably seemed worse at the time than it does now. The champion of that tournament (the United States) missed out on qualification for the World Cup while Mexico rolled on. Who cares about a summer stumble? The tournament also saw Edson Alvarez and Jesus Gallardo make strong pushes for inclusion on the roster that will head to Russia. Still, for a team that is so quick to boast of its dominance in the region, going out in the semifinals to a Jamaica that isn't near its peak at this point in history was a failure.
WAIT AND SEE
What we said then: "The group, with Sweden and South Korea in addition to Germany and Mexico, looks manageable. Mexico's match against Sweden looks to be the fixture everything could hinge on with Germany likely to win the group ... The round of 16 looks much different."
In hindsight ... How the upcoming year will be judged on how the World Cup goes for El Tri. The chance Mexico meets Brazil in the round of 16 makes progression to the fifth game — something Mexico never has accomplished off home soil — look difficult. The group may not go to plan either.
Either way, it's too early to judge exactly what Mexico has been dealt in Group G and how we'll look back at the path laid out in front of it at the World Cup.
What we said then: "Corona is one of the only Mexico players currently in good form with a European club who also has been able to translate those showings to the national team."
In hindsight ... Jesus Corona's return to the Mexico national team setup after missing the Confederations Cup seemed like a big deal. Osorio depended on few players like he did on Corona, who has scored more goals in the Osorio era than everyone but Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. Things are now less certain for Corona. Personal tragedy hit again with the loss of a child in November, something the federation and Corona decided they were forced to disclose after fans criticized him for again leaving the team. It must be an incredibly difficult thing to cope with for the 24-year-old, and it would be entirely understandable if he's struggled to focus on soccer lately. Whatever the cause, Corona's minutes at Porto have slipped as he's been reduced largely to a substitute role.
At least he's playing. Miguel Layun isn't making the Porto squad and desperately needs to make a move away from the Dragons to get playing time ahead of the World Cup. Diego Reyes has suddenly seen an uptick in playing time but had played fewer than 300 minutes heading into the final two months of the year. Osorio likely is encouraging those players to seek fresh air and come into the summer in a good rhythm.