Managers like to say the match in front of them is the most important one. Managers often are wrong.
But Sunday's World Cup qualifier against the United States will be the most important match for Mexico in a summer full of games that matter. While he might not say it outright, Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio knows that to be true, and showed it when he kept out a quartet of his best players in Thursday's 3-0 thumping of Honduras. This game is the one that counts — for fans, for players and for everyone around the Mexican national team.
"We're going to face the United States in a serious way, with the desire to win and get three points at home," midfielder Hector Herrera said at a news conference Saturday.
The history of World Cup qualifiers against the United States is significant. Mexico has never lost to the USA in the Estadio Azteca, and just twice has it dropped points in an official match. Four years have passed since 2013 draw, the teams' most recent meeting in El Coloso de Santa Ursula, but just like with Honduras' 2013 win in the stadium, the memories still remain.
Osorio has won over some fans (though certainly not all) by being the manager who has ended streaks. Mexico's long losing streak in the United States in qualification, the years without topping the Hex standings, even not having beaten Canada for some time. The last thing he needs is to snap his own streak of streaks by being in charge of the first defeat in the building to the rival.
And it's not just the rivalry factor that makes this game so critical for El Tri. A victory Sunday would mean Mexico could finish no worse than in the playoff with an Asian team to go to the World Cup, all but clinching passage to the 2018 showpiece in Russia. Europe-based stars worrying about their spot with their club teams or fighting off lingering injuries wouldn't have to worry about making trans-Atlantic trips to San Pedro Sula or San Jose. Osorio could continue to explore the depth he has at his disposal and keep up the rotations.
"The guys know that (Sunday's match) is an extraordinary opportunity in the face of the Russia World Cup," Osorio said at Saturday's news conference.
"We rested various players in the last match and they're going to be very fresh for tomorrow," he continued. "We're going to put out a competitive team and hopefully we can take this step, which would be extraordinary for Mexican soccer."
The Confederations Cup will be important, and Mexico is taking its top side. It would be impressive for Osorio's squad to go on a little run, perhaps even repeat the championship won in 1999 when Rafa Marquez was just a 20-year-old prospect. But even if Marquez is lifting the trophy in Russia this summer, it'll be overshadowed by the feeling that the celebrations would be that much larger, that it would mean that much more, to be doing the same a year from now at the World Cup.
And with all due respect to the Gold Cup, a tournament that I love, winning a title with an alternative side would speak more to Mexico's depth than anything else. It's an 'off-year' Gold Cup, which only means so much. Just ask the U.S., which won it in 2013 only for Mexico to win the place in the Confederations Cup in the 2015 playoff.
With plenty of big games to come this summer, this one is the biggest. The rivalry, the history, the implications all add up to make Sunday's contest the most important for El Tri.