Mexico national team coach pleasantly surprised by youth experiment despite loss

So what did we learn Saturday about the depth of Mexico’s aging national team? Or better yet, what did coach Jaime Lozano learn about his team?

Well, for starters, it can’t hold a lead, giving up a two-goal advantage in a 14-minute span early in the second half, then conceding the game-winner two minutes into stoppage time in a 3-2 loss to Colombia.

“The result is always important. And we are the first to acknowledge it,” Lozano said in Spanish. “They beat us in the end. It hurts.”

But, he quickly added, “I don’t know if it’s the most important thing.”

Not on this night, with this team, at this time and under these circumstances.

It was Lozano, after all, who had conceded that the middle of December probably wasn’t an ideal time for this team to be playing. The match was scheduled outside a FIFA international break, meaning the heart of the team — European-based players such as “Chucky” Lozano, Raúl Jiménez and Edson Álvarez — were unavailable.

It was also scheduled the same week as the domestic Liga MX final and the start of the Club World Cup, leaving the likes of Luis Malagón, Nestor Araujo and Henry Martín inaccessible. As a result, only two of the 26 players called up for Mexico’s previous competitive matches, last month’s Nations League quarterfinals with Honduras, were also in uniform for Saturday’s game with Colombia.

But the Mexican federation has bills to pay and its lucrative agreement with Soccer United Marketing, which requires the team to play a certain number of games in the U.S. each year, helps pay them. That certainly wasn’t hurt by Saturday’s Coliseum crowd of 64,609, largest of SUM’s six MexTour games in 2023.

But the contract says nothing about the players the team must use in those games. So Lozano, running out of time to rejuvenate a national team that has grown alarmingly old, called up what was probably the most inexperienced Mexico national team in decades. Fifteen of the 22 players in uniform Saturday had never played for Mexico; only one had ever scored an international goal.

Mexico midfielder Jordi Cortizo passes the ball away from Colombia defender Samuel Velásquez at the Coliseum.

Mexico midfielder Jordi Cortizo passes the ball away from Colombia defender Samuel Velásquez during the second half of an international friendly Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

It made the four-day training camp that ended with Saturday’s game a rare opportunity to give chances to players who have never had them on the international level. And for the most part, the experiment succeeded.

“I loved it. The performance was even greater than I expected,” Lozano said. “We really enjoyed these four days with them, we made the most of them. We got a lot out of it and in truth the vast majority of it surprised us for the better.”

Omar Govea scored his first international goal in his fifth appearance and Guillermo Martínez scored his first in his national team debut. Antonio Rodríguez, making his first start in goal, probably deserved a better fate since two of the three goals he gave up were the result of poor defensive plays. Midfielder Jordi Cortizo was also impressive.

“Without a doubt, if they maintain the level, they will have new opportunities for the national team,” Lozano said.

Mexico’s young team took more shots, put more of them on target, held the ball longer, passed it more often and completed a higher percentage of those passes than Colombia, whose team was only slightly more experienced.

“Then what happened, happened,” Lozano said of Colombia’s comeback.

Two of Colombia’s goals came from MLS players in Andrés Reyes and Andrés Gómez while the middle score game from Roger Martínez, who spent more than half of his career in Mexico. Naturally, Colombian assistant coach Amaranto Perea had a different take on his team’s finish.

“Be brave, go to the front and be able to turn the situation around,” he said, speaking of the approach of a team that finished 2023 unbeaten in 13 matches, its last loss coming more than 21 months ago against Argentina. “It seems that this team is learning to compete in almost every game. It has shown character and, in the end, we have been rewarded. We are building that competitive gene.”

The Mexico locker room afterward was funereal, but even that was a good sign, Lozano said. Nobody wanted to celebrate an international debut that came in a loss.

“Many times you can do many things well and the result often determines the mood,” Lozano said. “At least in this group.”

“We did many more things right than we did wrong,” he continued. “Sometimes in league [play] they forgive you; in the national team they don’t. You make a mistake once and usually you’re going to regret it and that’s what happened today.”

Mexico’s finished the year 7-3-3 under Lozano, who took over in June, becoming the team’s third coach in 12 months. What Mexico fans are more likely to remember, however, is that Lozano won only two of his last seven, failing to beat Honduras, Uzbekistan and Australia, none of whom are ranked among the world’s top 24 teams.

The clock is ticking toward 2026, when Mexico will play host to the World Cup for the third time. On the near horizon are the Nations League semifinals in March and the Copa América in the summer, the team’s most important tournament of the current World Cup cycle. That leaves little time to celebrate losses, even ones such as Saturday’s, which contained multiple small victories that could pay dividends down the road.

“Above all, [we’re] seeking to give an identity to the team, an idea where the players can demonstrate what they are and what they can become. I think we are going that way,” Lozano said. “But we have to build in 2024, a very important year in the process.”

There are, he added, “things to correct.”

Staff writer Eduard Cauich contributed to this report.

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