The pre-match questions for Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio were harsher than usual. Maybe it's the dry heat of Phoenix that has journalists agitated or is making Osorio testier, but much of the news conference focused on whether or not he'd keep his job were El Tri to lose against Honduras.
After Decio de Maria's backing for the manager following the Confederations Cup, it's doubtful Osorio really is coaching for his job Thursday. First of all, he isn't even coaching during the matches, serving a suspension while assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez handles the in-game switches. Second, this tournament is an alternative squad and, when Osorio looked to bolster the group this week like United States coach Bruce Arena did, he was rebuffed by Liga MX clubs.
The easiest way for Osorio not to get into this discussion, though, is to win the quarterfinal against Honduras and move into a semifinal against either the same Jamaica team that troubled Mexico in the group stage or an upstart Canada team.
Los Catrachos are no doubt reviewing the video footage from Jamaica's draw against Mexico, maybe even as we speak. Honduras has struggled going forward, getting no goals in the group stage but moving on after being awarded a 3-0 forfeit victory over French Guiana for the minnow's decision to field Florent Malouda. A scoreless draw and a win on penalties would produce no emotion but joy in Honduras, and unfortunately for El Tri it's not all that hard to imagine center backs Maynor Figueroa and Henry Figueroa clogging the middle while Carlos Sanchez and Felix Crisanto stymie the wingers on the outside.
"Honduras is going to show an athletic team, a fast team and very hard working, which is a characteristic of a team coached by Jorge Luis Pinto," Osorio said in a news conference Wednesday.
Finding a way to undo that hard work will be tough. One Mexican program had contributors project a starting XI with a panelist putting "el que sea" in at center forward . "Whoever" is in there, whether that be Erick "Cubo" Torres, Angel Sepulveda or Martin Barragan. Torres was the forward put into a vice-grip by Jamaica, while Barragan has done very little to prove he's actually ready to be a senior national team player. And while Sepulveda was able to find the back of the net to open the scoring against Curacao, it took pinpoint service from Raul "Dedos" Lopez for him to do so.
It wasn't any secret coming into the game that scoring could be an issue, especially from the forwards. But the glimmer of hope that someone like Torres would latch on to their opportunity and become a viable option for this depth side has faded out. Elias Hernandez is the only player who has showed any sort of dynamism, while the forwards misfire and Rodolfo Pizarro continues to work out how he's supposed to be playing in the three-man front line.
The game could come down to penalties, but more likely it will be on set pieces. Mexico has been able to score from them throughout the summer, while Honduras will be eager to win fouls anywhere near the box, especially on counterattacks. As poor as Mexico's forwards have been, the defenders have looked shaky. They'll need to make sure not to give the Central Americans any opportunity to beat them easily.
After the game against Jamaica, Osorio said his team had worked on beating a side that sits back as the Reggae Boyz did, even if he didn't expect Curacao to do the same. In some ways, it's simply a learning process for the young group of Mexico players. But more than that it was preparation for the quarterfinal and semifinal, where Mexico likely will have little work to do defensively aside from wrangling in a few breaks forward but will have to labor to find the back of the net.
"We’ve worked a lot on the way - or the five, six ways - of breaking through against an opponent who sits back a bunch with the number of chances we have in their area and behind the ball and intensely in the form they treat the ball," he said last week.
He'll be hoping that work pays off to avoid not only an early exit from a tournament Mexico hopes to win but also to avoid more questions about his future with the team. How well Mexico has learned those five or six ways Osorio has drawn up to beat the bunker will dictate just how well Thursday's quarterfinal goes for El Tri.