U.S. Has Advantage Over Mexico With Troubled Chepo Leadership

PHOTO: Fans unfurl a large U.S. flag after the U.S. Mens National Team scored their second goal against Mexico.

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Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre knew what had to be done. It was Nov 22, 1992, in the 87th minute of a 1994 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. Goalkeeper Jorge Campos got sent off and Mexico had used all of its allotted substitutions.

De la Torre grabbed the gloves. He had this covered.

Chepo pulled off two saves integral in preserving a clean sheet in a 4-0 win, adding to his earlier goal. That game was his penultimate for El Tri. Chepo never played in a World Cup.

He won't coach in one anytime soon, either.

Late Friday night, following a 2-1 loss to Honduras, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) fired de la Torre.

El Tri, with the same roster Chepo called up and coached by his assistants, lost to the United States three days later, by the historically significant scoreline of dos a cero. Landon Donovan peered through an eye infection to guide the Yanks to a fourth straight 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.

Tied for fourth in the Hex, Mexico faces a potential playoff against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup. There's a real possibility the country could fail to qualify for the World Cup for only its third time (leaving aside 1990, when Mexico was banned). The national team, the undisputed toast of North and Central America as recently as a year ago, is in disarray.

Chepo was supposed to be a safe pair of hands. He came in after the shambles of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era (following two temporary coaches, including Javier Aguirre in the 2010 World Cup). The FMF handed de la Torre, three Liga MX titles to his name, the gloves. He had this covered.

But the bleak moralism that demanded Chepo to throw himself in goal when the need arose didn't always serve him well as a coach. Uptight, strict and meticulous, he alienated Mexico's best forward, Carlos Vela, and goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa. Neither accepted invitations to the latest roster.

Following 10 wins from 12 games in a scintillating 2012, El Tri's form dropped off perilously. Mexico won just once in the first 11 games since the turn of the year. Overall, Chepo's record in 2013 reads: six wins, eight draws, five defeats out of 19 total.

What happened over Christmas to so markedly damage the team's form? If there was a simple answer, Chepo likely would have figured it out.

His insistence on tinkering with alternate formations, presumably in search of secondary tactical options, didn't help. Also, the success of the youth team that won the 2012 Olympic gold for soccer pressed de la Torre's hand, and he largely failed to incorporate a highly talented fresh generation into the player pool.

The final straw came Friday. Mexico, for the second time in all of history ever, lost a home World Cup qualifier, when Carlo Costly instigated a 2-1 Honduras result. That's a second loss in 78 games overall. The previous one, a June 2001 defeat to Costa Rica, is called 'Aztecazo' south of the border.

Estadio Azteca, which brims with six-digit attendance figures, some of whom chuck urine among other things at opposing players, lost its air of invincibility. This year, under Chepo, Mexico dropped nine points there in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Prior to that stretch (three scoreless draws and the Honduras loss), Mexico won 15 straight World Cup qualifiers in Azteca. Honduras ended Mexico's 27-game unbeaten run in home qualifiers.

The FMF met late into Friday night, but it didn't take a soothsayer to predict their decision. In fact, most argued the termination should have come earlier. The FMF's patience stemmed from several reasons: the vibrancy of the 2012 performances, a seven-figure buyout clause, complications with the availability of the best Mexican coaches, etc.

None of those reasons could save de la Torre after Friday, of course.

Chepo never did make it to a World Cup. The question now becomes: will his replacement?

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