RANCAGUA, Chile — For the first time since taking charge of Mexico, Miguel Herrera has experienced a major failure.
Mexico fans won't be running for the pitchforks – the Copa America was always a bonus competition. Mexico's best team is training and preparing for the Gold Cup, with the potential spot in the Confederations Cup the prize that victory would bring. But Mexico is a country that prides itself on its depth. That depth squad failed to beat teams like Bolivia and Ecuador, and it's now headed home while other teams stay in Chile to continue on in the South American championship.
Herrera's squad was hard hit by injuries with Rafa Marquez and Adrian Aldrete missing group matches with leg problems, but that's no excuse for the poor showing El Tri put in. The team simply wasn't ready to open the tournament. Herrera said his team "didn't understand what they were facing" in the tournament. That's on him as the manager.
A manager's job, especially at the international level, is to put his players in the best positions to succeed. Unlike club soccer, you can't make any signings. Don't have a forward? Tough. You're stuck with the hand you're dealt. In Friday's match, with Aldrete injured, the manager turned to Efrain Velarde to fill the role in a like-for-like switch. It didn't work out, and Mexico was behind at the break. Herrera tried to reverse his mistake with a halftime substitution, but in doing so burned a substitution he could've saved by starting out in the 4-4-2 in the first place.
Not only did Herrera waste the substitution, he put Velarde in a situation he clearly wasn't ready for. The newly signed Leon man was the weak link in Mexico's friendlies against Guatemala and Peru. But he wasn't the only thing that was wrong. With the attack stalling, Herrera threw in a random collection of attacking players in the form of Javier Aquino, Marco Fabian and Eduardo "Lalo" Herrera. But there was no attacking cohesion and the changes put too much pressure on players in the middle like Juan Carlos Medina.
Then, he doubled down, bickering with the referee and getting himself sent off. A manager can use a fiery rant now and then to great effect, but his sending off served only to hurt the team that hardly rallied around his departure. His "us against them" narrative of officials in South America also falls short. Mexico was lucky not to have Gerry Flores called for a penalty and got one of its own that Raul Jimenez managed to convert. Jimenez's included, Mexico has converted more penalties than any other team since El Tri became tournament regulars in 1993.
It's not only media and fans pointing the finger at the manager. Contrary to his previous form, Herrera also pointed the finger at himself.
"I'm the one responsible for the national team," he said in his news conference after the match. "The people should be annoyed because we aspired to do a lot more, to do big things. We assume the responsibility given to us. The team was designed to advance as far as we could and we had more in mind."
People were expecting more in part because Herrera has had the golden touch since arriving in late 2013, but he's not King Midas. Eventually, his luck will run out and Herrera will have to show he has the tactical prowess to get the most out of the national team. This was a practice test, but it was one he failed. The real exam is coming up quickly in the form of the Gold Cup. The good news for Mexico is there's now plenty of time for study hall. The bad news is there will be no second opportunities. If Herrera fails to lift that trophy, he may find himself back on the job market.