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Mexico's Mister Meticulous: Osorio aiming to solve El Tri puzzle

12:44 PM EDT 6/15/18
Juan Carlos Osorio Mexico 06212017
The Mexican national team coach has scoured the globe looking for any edge to push Mexico past its long-standing World Cup boundaries

It is midnight in Denmark and Juan Carlos Osorio is up late and having trouble sleeping. Having recently arrived in Europe from Mexico with the Mexican national team, Osorio is wrestling with the time difference, his insomnia is only made worse by the million-piece jigsaw puzzle in his mind he is working feverishly to solve.

The puzzle is the winning game plan that transforms his Mexican team into something special, a group greater than the sum of its parts. One capable of making a deep run, even if few outside Mexico, and not all inside Mexico, see El Tri lighting up Russia this month.

Osorio has spent months traveling the world in search of knowledge, advice, historical precedents and motivational tools to convince his team that reigning champion Germany can be beaten, and that falling in the tournament's Round of 16 doesn't have to be Mexico's fate, as it has been for six straight World Cups.

"We’re going to try and play and attack against anybody, regardless of how big a team they are, and try to win games by playing without fear," Osorio told Goal in an exclusive interview. "In the past (for Mexico in World Cups) I think the idea was to not concede goals and see what happens at the end. That’s fair, and fine, but this time around we will try to be more offensive-minded and more driven towards winning games rather than just waiting until the end and seeing what happens."

Both during his tenure as Mexico coach, and in his research into the program's past, Osorio noticed a trend he set out to destroy. He believes El Tri has long had a habit of getting up for, and playing with their fiercest relentlessness against, inferior opponents in CONCACAF, but too often that same energy and desire to be protagonists had failed to appear against higher-profile competition.

In Osorio's eyes, that trend has helped directly contribute to the current run of six defeats in World Cup round of 16 matches — the first step of the knockout rounds — which has often come against traditional powerhouses like Argentina (twice), Germany and most recently the Netherlands. But the streak also includes a loss to Bulgaria in 1994 and the memorable 2002 loss to the United States.

In Mexico, the elusive fifth World Cup game has developed its own legend, but Osorio doesn't buy into the myth. When he looks at the streak he sees Mexican performances that simply weren't good enough to win, even the controversial loss to the Netherlands in 2014, which was ultimately decided by a questionable penalty.

"We cannot spend time thinking about curses or bad luck or bad decisions. I only care to deal in what is real," Osorio said. "To win those kind of games, you must be proactive and you must be willing to attack and you cannot be afraid to fail.

"It’s about being proactive and positive," Osorio said. "We can win games, and we can score goals, as long as we have enough players getting into the attacking third. If we do, we will have chances, and we can score goals."

Goals haven't exactly poured in for Mexico in recent matches — El Tri managed just one goal in its three pre-World Cup friendlies — but where Mexico fans have seen cause for concern, Osorio has seen opportunities being created, and matches in the past year against opponents who are at the level El Tri will likely face in the knockout rounds.

"The players believe we can play against top teams because we’ve had very good games against Uruguay, Portugal, Belgium, Poland," Osorio said. "The teams we have played in the last year or so that have really stretched us to compete at that level."

Mexico is facing yet another path filled with stiff challenges, beginning with its opening match against Germany on Sunday, and potentially including a round of 16 match against Brazil. The Germany match has been Osorio's central focus, and it is a match he has worked on convincing his team can be won. Germany is the heavy favorite as reigning World Cup champions, and because of its 4-1 win against Mexico in last year's Confederations Cup. Osorio remembers that match more for what Mexico showed, and for the experience it gave his team against the World Cup title-holders.

"The German squad will have a lot of players that played in Confederations Cup, and we played against them," Osorio said. "People will say it was a bad result, but while the score was 4-1, we had better possession and we hit the crossbar and missed two very good chances that could have tied the game.

"We have made a video of that game with all the chances and how we put pressure on them and how we regained the ball," Osorio said. "We are preparing the game plan based on those real facts."

Osorio is very much a student of history, and with Mexico a big underdog against Germany, the Colombian coach spent the months following the World Cup draw looking for examples of underdog victories, be it in war history, or soccer history. He has shown his team the 2002 World Cup opener, which saw Senegal pull off a shocking win against defending champion France. He also reached out to and eventually met with Guus Hiddink to pick his brain about the 2002 South Korean team, which Hiddink led to an improbable run to the semifinals and included knockout round victories against Italy and Spain.

"I think we can do something like South Korea did (in 2002)," Osorio said. "Hopefully that will be the case."

Osorio has become a polarizing figure in Mexican soccer, drawing criticism from fans and media alike for perceived quirks and flaws. 

"The infamous squad rotations? That’s just baloney," a defiant Osorio says, referring to the criticism of him being too much of a tinkerer. "If you look at the 25 important games we have played, there are always seven, eight, nine players that always play. Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado, Miguel Layun, Hector Herrera, Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Hirving Lozano, Tecatito.

"Then there is the misconception that I have a problem with short players, and prefer tall players," Osorio said. "I never mentioned the height of the player, I have mentioned that we need to be strong in the air, but I’d never say anything about short players. There’s talk that certain players aren’t here because they’re short, but the fact of the matter is our team is full of players who would be considered short, so it’s all BS."

Osorio has tried hard to conceal his team's tactical approach heading into the tournament, and specifically Sunday's opener against Germany. Part of the reason it is tougher to project Mexico's tactical strategy is because Osorio has succeeded in implementing a variety of formational setups.

"One of the improvements that we have made as a team is the fact that we can play in three different systems and the players are pretty adapted to that," Osorio said. "They have embraced the way we prepare and the way we approach the game, and that’s a big achievement because now going into games we have a Plan A and Plan B and we can adjust defending on what we need."

As much as the current El Tri squad is widely-regarded as the most talented group in Mexican national team history, it still isn't a team strong enough to coast through the group stage playing less than its best, not with a tough Sweden team being a real threat to grab one of the two spots in the knockout rounds. El Tri is going to need finish chances, avoid defensive mistakes, and draw top efforts from its leaders.

"We need our top five-six performers performing really well," Osorio said. "Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, Javier Hernandez and Hirving Lozano. If we have those six players on top form I think we can make a good run because they can lead the group and give us a strong foundation to face any opponent."

The first opponent may be the toughest, but Sunday's opener against Germany also offers his team the opportunity to shock the world, and build the kind of confidence that could carry the Mexicans far in Russia.

"We’re going to play against the World Champions, and that’s a fantastic opportunity," Osorio told Goal. "We’re going to compete against the best, and that’s what we’re in this sport for. All of my life I have been dreaming of playing against the world champions and this is it for me. "