SAN LUIS POTOSI, Mexico — The issue was obvious this summer. Mexico's defense is not good enough to stop top teams. El Tri conceded four goals to Germany and two to Paraguay in defeats at the Confederations Cup. They even allowed New Zealand and Russia both to get strikes on the board.
There was some hope, though, that defenders would improve. Carlos Salcedo and Diego Reyes both left the tournament with injuries after deputizing at right back, each seemingly bound for a new club in Europe. In the end, only Salcedo's move materialized. Hector Moreno had left the squad quickly to sign a new deal with Roma, seeming to cement his status as a top-tier defender. Several young players showed glimpses of promise. Maybe it wouldn't be so hard to whip these guys into shape.
Now, Mexico is qualified for the World Cup, using Friday's qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago and next week's at Honduras to prepare for the summer tournament. The defense is as concerning as ever. That optimism has faded as players have ended up in club situations where they're not seeing regular minutes. Salcedo is only just recovering from the injury he suffered in Russia. Moreno's move to Roma has him making cameos as a sub rather than being relied upon heavily in Serie A. Reyes wasn't able to leave Porto and has seen just 16 minutes this season, those as a midfielder. Left back Miguel Layun also is struggling to get on the field for the Dragons, playing his second full 90 of the season in Sunday's scoreless draw with Sporting.
Club form does not always translate to the national team, nor does the reverse work. Still, the hope that El Tri's back line would be full of confidence going into Russia thanks to regular encounters with some of Europe's top attackers is shrinking.
The biggest reason for optimism is Edson Alvarez, the 19-year-old Club America center back. After playing most of the Gold Cup at right back, the teenager started Mexico's most recent qualifier wide right and hung with the Ticos. The fact that he and fellow Liga MX-based player Nestor Araujo continue to get games week after week won't hurt their cases to start Friday nor to be factors in the World Cup. But as we saw in the Confederations Cup, it's one thing to be able to keep Liga MX and CONCACAF players from finding the back of the net and another to stop Germany, Portugal or others.
That puts a premium on the international breaks, which will allow defenders not only to build more chemistry with each other but also to find rhythm.
The true test for the defense may come in Europe, where the federation is scheduling friendly matches for just this reason. Belgium and Poland have top-quality attacks, the type which Mexico will face in Russia. This Trinidad and Tobago team does have quality up front, but coach Dennis Lawrence is looking to the future with these final two World Cup qualification matches. Levi Garcia, a 19-year-old winger playing for AZ in the Netherlands, plus MLS mainstays Kevin Molino and Joevin Jones pack some punch. The Soca Warriors have put up big numbers against Mexico before, including four goals in the 2015 Gold Cup's wild draw with El Tri.
Yet, Trinidad and Tobago has shown in the Hex that they're not a World Cup-level team. Mexico's defense needs tests against that level of players, but in the interim simply playing a match and being back on the field in a competitive atmosphere may be solid enough to serve as a boost for El Tri's back line. Building on that will have to come later - and quickly - for Mexico to achieve its future goals