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Mexico center backs of the future must become center backs of the present

1:00 PM EDT 10/15/19
Néstor Araujo Selección
With Nestor Araujo and Carlos Salcedo potentially starting again, El Tri needs a dominant showing at the back to ease fears of future issues

The Mexico national team we'll see in Qatar is starting to take shape. Up top, there are players excelling both in Europe's top leagues and domestically to spearhead the attack. In the middle, the situation is similar. Goalkeeper is rarely an issue for El Tri. And even the new crop of fullbacks should give Mexico fans hope that manager Tata Martino has several prospects in the pipeline who will be ready to produce in late 2022.

At center back? The fact that Martino had to repeat the center-back pairing he used in September against Argentina in Bermuda should indicate where things are on that front. Carlos Salcedo and Nestor Araujo are set to pair together again against Panama on Tuesday, and Martino has to be hoping they'll continue to show growth and inspire confidence that they can be the two men in the middle three years from now.

While Martino looks to be preparing for the future with most of his Nations League squad, there are few options behind the 26-year-old Salcedo and 28-year-old Araujo. In addition to that pair, Martino has Queretaro center back Luis Romo, a regular at Martino's mini-camps who is still awaiting his first international minutes, and Monterrey's Johan Vasquez in this camp. There are few indications either will start any time soon for the senior side, with the pair more likely brought in as emergency cover. Romo is too old for the Olympics and Vasquez got just under half an hour in the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago.

Were Salcedo and Araujo a dominant pair, it wouldn't be much of a debate. But in addition to being some of the only center backs available to Martino, they've also struggled.

It's a struggle that has been a bit of a mystery. Salcedo didn't look at all out of his depth at the 2018 World Cup, standing out as Mexico's best defender all tournament, even in the knockout game against Brazil. Even as he wavered between taking an absence from international play after the tournament, it was clear Salcedo was needed for Mexico going forward as a potential foundation of the defense for years to come.

Yet, lately things haven't been going as well, and members of the press have started to take aim at Salcedo as one of the sources of Mexico's woes.

"With respect to the criticism, what can I say? I take it on, but I don’t pay much attention to things that people are talking bout outside," Salcedo said at a news conference that ironically made more headlines for a comment he made about the Mexican press being out for blood and focusing more on players' personal lives than play on the field. "I think if you analyze the game well, there are a lot more positive things than negative ones. Ultimately, the score is there."

The score was good against Bermuda. Mexico kept the Gombey Warriors to just one goal, a rocket off a set piece from Queens Park Rangers forward Nahki Wells, and scored five of its own. But a 4-0 loss to Argentina still looms large. In that game it was individual errors that made the difference, with Araujo having perhaps his worst match in a Mexico shirt and Salcedo committing a careless handball that set up a penalty for the only goal you couldn't pin on Araujo.

For some reason, these players who generally are tidy and careful on club level, understanding their roles in the systems they're being asked to play and carrying them out well - and even excelling at times with the national team - aren't working well in tandem. Even against Bermuda, there were moments early on when it didn't look like things were clicking, when the partnership didn't look like it was plugged in.

The defensive struggles aren't new. Thanks to standout performances by goalkeepers including, but not limited to, Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico's defense often has been able to bend but not break. But when it does break, it snaps cleanly in two and often never gets put back together.

The search for new center backs isn't new either. Since Rafa Marquez started to lose a step, Salcedo and Araujo have been the defenders of the future but so have players like Diego Reyes, Hugo Ayala, Hiram Mier, Oswaldo Alanis, Miguel Herrera and others. 

What doesn't quite add up is that both Salcedo and Araujo look different. Araujo is playing each week in La Liga with Celta de Vigo, and while the season hasn't started as hoped for Los Celestes, Araujo is rarely the problem at club level. He has put in good performances against some of the game's biggest stars but then falls flat with El Tri.

We saw that Salcedo has all the tools last summer during the World Cup. Yet, while other players have excelled despite concerns when coming back to this side of the Atlantic, the move from Eintracht Frankfurt to Tigres doesn't seem to have helped Salcedo grow. Maybe he doesn't care, and being part of a title-winning team certainly has been rewarding. But the rumors of a return to Europe with Marseille may be a positive potentially development.

Unless someone else emerges, this is what Mexico has got. Hector Moreno, being left-footed and a skilled passer, is a great option as the left center back but while he's getting a head start to life in Qatar, he'll no longer be in his prime when the World Cup actually is taking place there. We've seen other center backs fall short of their projected greatness. Tuesday's game against Panama is a chance for Araujo and Salcedo to deliver a dominant performance and ease fears that the center of defense will be the consistent trouble spot in the Martino era.