Tata Martino must figure out how to maximize depleted Mexico squad
ATLANTA -- Mexico's Gold Cup preparation game on Wednesday against Venezuela should be about two central issues: narrowing down the squad to 23 names for the CONCACAF tournament and Gerardo "Tata" Martino's return to the city where found MLS glory.
But when Martino steps out onto Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of the 50,000-plus expected crowd and takes in the applause, you would forgive him if he felt a little extra twinge of nostalgia than would normally be expected.
In case anyone needs reminding, Martino led Atlanta United for two seasons and crowned the period in charge with the 2018 MLS Cup. The Argentine became a legend in the southern city and has talked about how comfortable he was. Martino's time in MLS was an example of process, patience and being granted optimal conditions to be able to succeed.
It's hard not to frame Martino's return as highlighting the contrast between the smooth-running Atlanta United machine and the stuttering Mexico national team he has inherited, full of lingering issues that aren't necessarily his fault, but have taken the spotlight in his first El Tri game since the successful March friendlies.
Instead of using the warm-up against a competitive Venezuela for final experimentation and cutting a 27-player squad down to 23 for the Gold Cup, the primary concern for Martino is not picking up more injuries, especially to key players.
Marco Fabian and Ivan Rodriguez remain major doubts with ankle injuries, Martino confirmed in Tuesday's press conference, although there has been better news regarding Carlos Salcedo, who is on course to be included in the squad.
Martino is, however, reluctant to concern himself with those that aren't here and instead wants to look ahead.
"The important absences that we have has opened the door to see some young players that we wanted to see," said Martino. "If the majority of the players not here would've been here, those youngsters wouldn't have had this chance."
But despite Martino side-stepping the issue of the absentees, there has been little dampening of the idea that playing for the national team doesn't mean the same it once did, with former striker Luis Roberto "Zague" Alves questioning whether players feel the necessary pride to answer the national team's call regardless of how important the competition is.
"What happens if in my situation (and I believe that of those that aren't in the national team right now) I continue to feel the moral and sporting pride of being able to represent my country even though, by mutual agreement, they haven't called me into the Gold Cup?" Hernandez responded, whose wife is expecting their first child very soon.
An additional distraction is the transfer speculation surrounding players. Edson Alvarez is being linked with a move to Europe, while Guillermo Ochoa (who confirmed he is leaving Standard Liege), Diego Reyes and Hector Moreno (who could head to Inter Miami CF) are all expected to change clubs.
As for the team to face Venezuela, Martino has made it clear that over Wednesday's game and Sunday's second friendly against Ecuador on Sunday, he'll want to see as many players as possible, although he did stress he'll be sticking with a 4-3-3 this summer.
It's likely that Santos Laguna's Jonathan Orozco will get a start in goal, with Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez and Fernando Navarro battling it out for a spot at right back, Reyes and Moreno as the center-backs, and Jesus Gallardo on the left of the defense. In midfield, Alvarez is expected to play the holding role, with Andres Guardado and Carlos Rodriguez in front.
Upfront, there are relatively few options, with Rodolfo Pizarro, Roberto Alvarado and Raul Jimenez the likely trio both to face Venezuela and headline at the Gold Cup, although Martino did hint that Uriel Antuna and Orbelin Pineda are also possibilities.
The expectations for this Mexico squad and group aren't high given the names missing, but Martino will want to put on a show in Atlanta and try to turn the momentum on what has been a rocky start to the summer for El Tri.