You will hear plenty of words used to describe Juan Carlos Osorio: thinker, perfectionist, tinkerer, vagabond. To understand Juan Carlos Osorio, you must first realize he has spent years upon years trying to crack the code that is the game of soccer, studying it down to its cellular level. A native of Colombia who moved to the United States to play college soccer and study, Osorio has spent a quarter of a century working toward trying to understand and master the game on a tactical level, though even he would admit that even as his resume gained more successes, there was still more to learn.
A dozen years ago in Manchester, England, you could regularly find Osorio in his personal sanctuary, a study room filled to the brim with books on tactics and video cassettes of important matches. Before things like analytics became popular, you could find Osorio with charts breaking down the completion percentages of crosses from different parts of the field. He tackled the UEFA A coaching license early on during his time in England with Manchester City, and although he was hired as a strength and conditioning coach, it wasn't long before Osorio was running the first-team training sessions for head coach Kevin Keegan.
All the while he yearned for a head coaching job of his own. Osorio longed for the chance to be a manager in England back then, but he knew he would always carry the label of being just a conditioning coach even though he was more than that. When England looked like an impossible market to break into, Osorio set his sights on returning to the United States, where he had lived and previously served as an assistant coach. But landing a head coaching job in MLS without any head coaching experience, after five years away from the league, was all but impossible.
That led Osorio to his first stint in Colombia, where he enjoyed modest success with Millonarios, enough success to draw attention from the Chicago Fire. Osorio jumped at the chance and helped take a Fire team that was in last place to the playoffs. Mexican playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco played a key part in that surge as well, but Osorio's tactics were vital to the turnaround.
Osorio only lasted half a season with the Fire. In part because of his wife's desire to live closer to family in New York, but also in part because of Osorio's belief that Fire ownership wasn't committed to providing the resources necessary to win. Osorio eventually forced his way to the New York Red Bulls, which seemed like a dream job at first, but became a nightmare. He coached the Red Bulls during a time when the club wasn't the free-spending team it became during the Thierry Henry era from 2010 to 2014, and before the club had its own stadium. With the exception of Colombian standout Juan Pablo Angel, Osorio's Red Bulls teams lacked star power and a willingness to spend money, which often led Osorio to settle for his fourth or fifth options when shopping on the international player market.
Despite this, Osorio managed to lead the Red Bulls to the MLS Cup final in 2008, a stunning run considering it came after a relatively lackluster regular season. That was probably the first real sign that there was something to Osorio as a coach. Unfortunately for him, that accomplishment was quickly forgotten in 2009, when the Red Bulls endured a nightmare season and finished with one of the worst records in league history.
That season turned into a personal hell for Osorio, who simply couldn't tactic his way out of losing streaks, and who begged the club to let him sign Colombian defender Mario Yepes, only to be told Yepes was too old at 33 (Yepes went on to spend four years at AC Milan after that, and more recently starred in the 2014 World Cup). Osorio tinkered with his lineups incessantly, desperately seeking a solution to solve the losing. A solution never came, and Osorio wound up stepping down before the 2009 season ended.
If the 2009 season with the Red Bulls was rock bottom, it also signaled the the start of what would be an incredible six-year career resurgence that began with a return to Colombia, where he eventually settled with Atletico Nacional. It was the perfect club for him to show off all his abilities, not only as a tactician and man manager, but also as a talent evaluator. With club backing that allowed him to build a solid team, Osorio racked up three Colombian league titles, two Copa Colombia titles, and most impressively, he guided the Colombian club to the finals of the Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores. It was an incredible achievement during a time when South American soccer has been dominated by Argentine and Brazilian clubs.
That success is what put the 54-year-old on Mexico's radar. it certainly wasn't his failed stint at Puebla prior to joining Atletico Nacional. What Mexican federation bosses must have seen was a coach who could get the most out of his talent, and could handle the pressure of big competitions. His brief stint at Brazilian giant Sao Paulo was also successful, which surely provided the final confirmation that he was someone worthy of the El Tri post.
Will Osorio be a good fit for Mexico? Only time will tell, but his strengths as a coach appear to be a good fit for the team he is inheriting. The current Mexico squad has considerable talent all over the field and will give a coach as creative as Osorio plenty of options to attack opponents. He showed during his time in Colombia, and at times in MLS, that his teams can attack when necessary, but also can defend resolutely against high-powered competition.
Two big questions will hover over Osorio's appointment as Mexico manager. How will a workaholic club coach handle the transition to being a national team coach, which can leave coaches without matches to play or camps to run for weeks at a time? One of Osorio's strengths is his ability to put in incredible amounts of time into working with his players and finding the best ways to not only utilize them, but also to motivate them.
The other big question is whether Osorio will be able to coexist with the framework surrounding the Mexican national team that has been known to lead to meddling and conflict. The El Tri coaching job has become a revolving door in part because of all the forces that seem to always try to be involved in the running of the team. Osorio has shown throughout his head coaching career that he doesn't take well to interference from upper management, and he won't bite his tongue if he isn't happy with how things are being run.
If Osorio can develop a good working relationship with his new bosses, the Mexico job could be a perfect fit for him. It is easily the biggest job of his career, and just the kind of opportunity he has spent decades dreaming of.