Forget all the criticism, the frustration, the airport accosting, the barbs from former coaches and players. Forget all of that. Juan Carlos Osorio is on the brink of accomplishing his most important task as Mexico coach.
After 2013 saw El Tri narrowly qualify for the 2014 World Cup, going to the playoff where they thrashed New Zealand over two legs to confirm passage to Brazil, Osorio has his team one result away from booking passage to the 2018 World Cup with time to spare. Friday night could be the manager's mission accomplished moment.
The summer tournaments have been failures. Mexico was embarrassed by Chile in the Copa America Centenario, came up short at the Confederations Cup after being blown out by Germany and couldn't even win the Gold Cup. But getting to the World Cup has always been job number one since Osorio arrived at the start of this cycle. If his team can beat Panama on Friday, he'll have months to figure out job number two, which is getting Mexico to a fifth game at the World Cup itself.
Not that Osorio seems too stressed about it. The coach said Thursday that he's been loving life since the Gold Cup.
"Personally, I couldn't feel better. The rest served me well, I took advantage of it to the fullest, spending it with my family," Osorio said at a news conference. "I watched a lot of international soccer and I coached the teams where my kids played. I really enjoyed being on the field, trying out a lot of things I can apply to future trainings with other teams including those at the highest level."
He'll have even less stress if his team tops the Caneleros. Even if it's only for three games, having qualification locked up will make Osorio's life much easier. It looks like he's ready to let some players go back to their clubs rather than make the trip to Costa Rica should El Tri cinch up their spot in Russia this weekend. You can look at Brazil for an example, as well. While the rest of South America is playing pressure-packed games, Tite has been able to keep a loose atmosphere as his team runs away at the top of the table.
It would only be one full FIFA window, but Osorio could enjoy the same luxury, trying out players who aren't in the regular rotation (though you could argue he does that anyway) and leaving players with knocks or fighting for time in their clubs without the disruption of a trip back home.
Of course, beating Panama is hardly a given, even in the Azteca. The Central Americans come in motivated and injury worries for Hector Moreno and Jair Pereira could complicate Osorio's choices at center back. That'd be even harder to swallow for a team that had zero fullbacks in the initial call-up and added Raul Lopez as an injury replacement. While a win would take the pressure off, it remains on until things are finished mathematically.
"Being so close creates a bit of anxiousness for the game, but we believe that we're really well prepared," Osorio said. "We're expecting that the team we have will give everything in this game and try to get us even closer to the goal."
The way the team has played at the Azteca, and in qualification in general in this cycle, getting to the goal should be easy. Mexico will qualify for the World Cup in painless fashion, and Osorio will have accomplished a huge part of what he was brought in to do.