SAN ANTONIO — A soccer match was played here.
If we remember Mexico's 1-0 win against Bosnia and Herzegovina, it will not be for the action on the field as much as the faces we saw on the Alamodome pitch. Just like a 2014 friendly win over South Korea at the Alamodome stays in the memory as Alan Pulido's breakout party, the individual performances on the non-FIFA date will prove more memorable than the collective.
Nobody scored a hat trick like Pulido did four years ago, but it's possible someone will do enough going forward to sneak onto the Russia roster as Pulido did and we'll remember this win over Bosnia as the launching pad to their inclusion.
Here are five things from Mexico's friendly win to open 2018:
Gonzalez takes to advanced role
Since the possibility of Jonathan Gonzalez representing Mexico was mentioned by members of the federation, Juan Carlos Osorio said he anticipated the midfielder playing in a more advanced role than he does with club team Monterrey. Osorio said Tuesday that was part of the recruitment process for Gonzalez, explaining to the 18-year-old in a phone call with his family and director of national teams Dennis te Kloese where he'd fit in with the team on the field.
True to his vision, Osorio had Gonzalez come into a lineup that had Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez sitting back in the middle of the midfield and Jonathan dos Santos on the left side. Gonzalez had few Bosnians coming forward to keep him honest and was able to get forward often in his 33 minutes of play.
"I think Jonathan had 30 minutes, if we think about his youth and that he was dressed for the first time in the national team shirt I think the message was positive," Osorio said after the match. "It’s not easy to play in this space between lines and complete specific functions. It leaves us with the feeling that he understands the game, understands his responsibilities. He has an extraordinary present and a promising future."
Anyone who saw Gonzalez in the Apertura with Monterrey knows he was phenomenal winning back the ball in midfield and moving it forward, but this cameo was the first time we've seen him do anything on a professional level aside from the role he fills for Rayados. It was promising, and we'll definitely be seeing more of Gonzalez in El Tri colors sooner (like March) rather than later (like the 2022 World Cup cycle).
Vela flashes versatility, if not fitness
Carlos Vela's fitness, along with that of Jonathan dos Santos, Giovani dos Santos and Oswaldo Alanis, was a hotly debated topic heading into the match. None of the MLS-based players or the Chivas center back, who was locked in a contract dispute with the club and missed the majority of preseason, had played a game yet in 2018. Osorio said Giovani's fitness stood out, but it was Vela and Jona who looked the best on the field.
Vela showed off his ability to excel in multiple places, something Osorio said will be a deciding factor in which players from this group head to the World Cup. Even as others struggled with the switched midfielders and forwards in the first half, Vela recognized the need to create and took on Bosnia defenders in one-on-one situations. In the second half, he worked well off Henry Martin and eventually was asked to make incisive runs from deeper as Mexico tried working with a false nine.
Osorio said the coaching staff didn't need to worry about anything but rather continue to push for players like Vela to be in the best possible form. "We have to work on our players continuing to compete, that Carlos Vela achieves - with Giovani as well - top condition physical condition, above all playing in this position where both can be very difficult to defend."
Beginning the season with MLS expansion side LAFC should be good for Vela, who will be soldiering a lot of the attacking burden for Bob Bradley's club. The former U.S. manager had to like what he saw from Vela on Wednesday, especially if he can give even more once he is at full fitness.
Fullbacks go the distance
In a bit of a rarity for an Osorio friendly, both fullbacks played all 90 minutes. That's not a huge surprise with the coaching staff wanting Jesus Gallardo, a Pumas winger being converted to left back, to have as much time in defense as possible. But Tigres right back Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez, himself a converted winger, also went the full match and put in a good shift.
With Chiapas and also at the start of his Tigres career, Rodriguez was a defensive midfielder but Tigres manager Tuca Ferretti has seen success moving the 27-year-old into the defense.
"Well, speaking with Ricardo Ferretti I agree how he describes him, who knows him better than I do," Osorio said. "I think we all know that at the start of this, Luis was an interior and he’s able to play that role in the game as well.
"One thing in particular, playing in a back four and playing outside, we look for good aerial play and good crossing from an outside back. I think today it was clearly shown that Luis and Jesus are getting forward and can do that well. So we're very satisfied, not only with Luis but also with Jesus, with their showing in this position."
Mexico's dearth of quality fullbacks is well documented after Miguel Layun was the only true outside back taken to the 2017 Confederations Cup. While other Liga MX options have failed to draw Osorio's eye, Rodriguez may have done enough Wednesday to earn a March recall.
Set pieces improve with Jona's entrance
Set pieces are very important for Mexico, especially if they're going to make inroads against a defense like Germany's at the World Cup. In the first half, the responsibility fell to Leon winger Elias Hernandez. Whether it was related to the different position he was playing Wednesday or something else, Hernandez wasn't hitting the ball well. His dead balls were off and one of his corner kicks was so poor it ended up going out for a throw-in.
Things changed in the second half, and while Mexico only managed to win three corners during the match and a few fouls in good positions, it took just one Jonathan dos Santos corner kick for Mexico to find the back of the net. The set piece came off the training ground, with Hugo Ayala using a teammate as a shield, then faking out his defender and earning a free header. The Tigres center back's header also was nice, but without the improved delivery it would never have happened.
Jona changed the game when he came on at the half, giving Mexico more calm in midfield and causing issues on the left side of the attack in addition to his dead-ball prowess.
"As a team Mexico played a really good second half. They got stronger, we fell off. Mexico played a really good second half," Bosnia manager Robert Prosinecki said after the match. "They played quickly on the wings, creating chances and playing really well. The number six was really good and seemed to have a hand in almost every play and made many of their dangerous passes."
Formation changes require quick understanding
It wasn't featured for as long as Osorio hinted, but Mexico went with a false-nine formation that utilized Rodolfo Pizarro as the point man.
There are times when Mexico puts a formation on the field with the players having very little time to work on that setup. Mexico trained Monday evening and Tuesday evening in San Antonio and traditionally has had a light session in the morning when the game takes place after 6 p.m. as Wednesday's match did. It still leaves little time for the team to drill the three different looks the team showed in the friendly.
How does a player adjust? For Pizarro it was about absorbing information as quickly as possible, something he hopes improves his chance of being part of Osorio's squad for Russia.
"Over the course of my career, I've played around six positions. So, you just have to try to learn the position quickly, try to work toward that and from there look to win a place," Pizarro said. "I'm still learning, I'm still getting better and that's what I'm working for."
The Chivas player has a long way to go but has shown his versatility with Chivas this season, playing next to Orbelin Pineda in the midfield when Michael Perez was injured and also assuming his normal creative role in several games.