With Mexico set to play for an Olympic gold medal, having already exceeded the expectations of all but the most ambitious of fans and federation directors, isn’t it finally time to give coach Luis Tena some credit?
Since taking over the team last year, Mexico’s Olympic coach has never been a fan favorite. The early thought was that Tena was bound to screw things up somehow. Even as the U-23 process became more and more successful, with victories in CONCACAF qualifiers and the Toulon tournament, Tena was seldom given much of the credit.
It was easier for many fans to fall back on the often-heard refrain that while the team was winning, the skill level of Mexican players was so high that Tena in fact was just getting in the way. Playing an overly defensive, dual holding mid formation that has been a trademark of the conservative manager for years, perhaps the coach was actually impeding his young attacking stars from showing all they could do.
Tena could do no right in other areas as well. Wanting to get Chicharito and Carlos Vela for his team (imagine this team with those two on it), he instead was dealt a tougher hand and forced to augment the attack with Oribe Peralta, who has hardly proved a fan favorite. With Peralta, he added veteran Carlos Salcido, not an exciting pick either.
Then in Great Britain, Tena pulled some more unthinkable moves. He insisted on starting Peralta up top, and stuck with him despite fans’ criticisms of the Santos forward, who spent much of the early tournament regaining his form.
The 15-year coaching veteran also stuck with a more defensive scheme, choosing to sure up a green defense with the veteran Salcido as a holding mid and commanding his pacy wingers to focus on the defensive end as much as the offense.
Perhaps most controversially, Tena kept Giovani Dos Santos on the bench for spells much longer than most fans would have liked to see. Only a Hector Herrera injury finally provided Dos Santos’ ticket into the starting lineup, a situation few fans agreed with.
But Tena would stand by his unorthodox decisions and defense-first strategy. And now, he’s ridden it all the way to the gold medal game. Only the most stubborn El Tri follower at this point could refuse to admit that the coach has been right all along - about everything.
Every single decision Tena has taken has come off brilliantly. The defensive stance in the opening game versus South Korea proved just what El Tri needed to win a tough group and move forward gradually. Had they lost to the then-high-flying Koreans, it would have meant facing Great Britain and Brazil to get to the gold medal match instead.
As for the controversial overage picks, Salcido has been quiet but steady in the midfield for Tena, and Peralta has come on stronger in each match. The hustle he displayed in keeping a ball in play immediately before his winning goal against Japan explains in a nutshell why Tena had him out there all along. And the finish? No need to mention how perfect a moment of redemption in the face of criticism that was, for player and coach.
The coach has been so successful that an alternative final score in London on Saturday might read: Tena, several; whining fans, none.
What makes Tena’s success all the more laudable is the tough hand he was dealt to work with. Sky-high expectations and the failure to secure the services of some of Mexico’s best young players for the Olympics meant delivering on the Olympic medal goal was that much harder.
But El Tri did it, and coach Tena was a huge part - whether all fans will give him the credit for it or not.
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