At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves here, Mexico's men's national team are tantalizingly close to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar -- assuming there isn't a historic collapse like the one seen from the USMNT in 2017.
With three games left in CONCACAF's eight-team qualifying stage, El Tri sit at third in the table behind Canada and the U.S., with a four-point cushion over fourth-place Panama. Mexico needs to maintain a spot within the top three for a direct World Cup invite, with fourth place taking part in an intercontinental playoff.
Although their next qualifier will be a daunting one at home against the United States (second place with 21 points) on March 24, El Tri will then close out their final Octagonal sprint with uncomplicated qualifiers against Honduras on March 27 and El Salvador on March 30. Honduras, who will host Mexico, are already out of the running for the World Cup with a tally of three points that have held them to the bottom of the table. El Salvador (sixth place on nine points) could also be knocked out of the race before the visit to Estadio Azteca.
Ahead of those matches, Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino has announced a 29-man roster that revealed some surprises and exclusions. And while some star players are certainly Qatar-bound, there are still numerous roles and positons up for grabs.
With that in mind, we've stepped into Martino's shoes to analyze his potential player pool and predict who the Mexico manager will ultimately pick for his 23-man squad for the tournament in that will kick off in late November.
How we're doing this
With Martino's proclivity for a 4-3-3 formation, we're splitting up the analysis through six position categories that will each have four tiers. The tiers are influenced by players' form for club and country, their importance to the national team and a variety of other factors.
Tier 1: Projected starter. Roster locks and players who are clear starters at their positions.
Tier 2: World Cup contributor. Players expected to be on the roster and contribute on the field, either as a starter or sub.
Tier 3: Roster bubble. Contention to be on the 23-man squad and provide roster depth.
Tier 4: Not this time. Players who have been around the team but likely won't receive much of a look for inclusion.
Who is going to the World Cup if Mexico qualifies? Let's dive into what Martino could be thinking.
Tier 1: Guillermo Ochoa (Club America)
Tier 2: (none)
Tier 4: Jonathan Orozco (Club Tijuana), Carlos Acevedo (Santos Laguna), Hugo Gonzalez (FC Juarez), Luis Malagon (Necaxa), Sebastian Jurado (Cruz Azul), Raul Gudiño (Chivas), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
There's Guillermo Ochoa and then there's everyone else when it comes to the goalkeeper position. After being Mexico's go-to player in net for the 2014 and 2018 editions of the World Cup, expect the 36-year-old to once again sit between the sticks in 2022.
Since taking charge in 2019, Martino has tended to lean towards more experienced names when it comes to alternatives for Ochoa. Alfredo Talavera, 39, has continued to be involved in call-ups. Rodolfo Cota, 34, has found a second wind in his career as arguably the best goalkeeper of the Liga MX season so far with Leon (despite some recent noteworthy blunders). That said, the El Tri opportunities have been scarce for the veterans who could be surpassed by other options such as Jonathan Orozco or Hugo Gonzalez.
As for youngsters, Santos Laguna's 25-year-old Carlos Acevedo appears as the most likely to sneak into a World Cup spot, especially after starting in a friendly in December, but has also yet to be given minutes in the Octagonal round. Following his one-time switch from the USMNT, Real Salt Lake's 21-year-old keeper David Ochoa has yet to be called up by Martino.
Selections: G. Ochoa, Cota, Talavera
Tier 1: (none)
Tier 4: Osvaldo Rodriguez (Leon), Salvador Reyes (Club America), Jose David "Avion" Ramirez (Leon), Alejandro Mayorga (Cruz Azul), Kevin Alvarez (Pachuca), Vladimir Loroña (Club Tijuana), Miguel Layun (Club America), Fernando Navarro (Pachuca), Omar Campos (Santos Laguna), Emilio Lara (Club America)
It's no secret that Mexico's right-back and left-back positions have become weak links. For club and country, both Jesus Gallardo and Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez have shown gradual signs of stagnation that seriously put their roles into question. While Gallardo was included in Mexico's call-up for March's World Cup qualifiers, Chaka was unexpectedly dropped.
If Gerardo Arteaga continues to secure good performances abroad in Belgium with Genk, he could then steal more minutes from Gallardo at left-back. Erick Aguirre might be a surprise World Cup addition as well if he can help revive Monterrey's season which has been disappointing as of late. Being able to play in the midfield doesn't hurt his chances either.
On the right-hand side of the full-back conversation, Chaka should be wary of LA Galaxy's Julian Araujo. The Mexican-American has rocketed up the El Tri depth chart thanks to an impressive national team debut in December and an efficient display as a sub in a February qualifier against Panama.
Elsewhere at right-back, Jorge Sanchez should be a near-lock, but he has yet to reach the heights that many have expected from him, thereby leaving an opportunity for Araujo. Alan Mozo is also worth noting thanks to some highlight-worthy performances in 2022 with Pumas, but there has been no indication that Martino will bring him back into the fold.
Predicted selections: Gallardo, Arteaga, L. Rodriguez, Araujo
Tier 1: Hector Moreno (Monterrey)
The 34-year-old Hector Moreno doesn't have the same pace and speed he once had, and there are no guarantees for him in a constant starting role with Monterrey, but the long-time veteran remains as a fantastic distributor and an imposing presence in the air. When fully fit and available, the big question for Martino has been one regarding Moreno's partner alongside him in the center of the defense.
That leaves Nestor Araujo, Johan Vasquez and Cesar Montes fighting for that secondary spot. However, in a back line that still needs work, it wouldn't be a shock if a partnership between any of these three younger options eventually pushes Moreno onto the bench.
Of the Tier 3 players, Julio "Cata" Dominguez's well-roundedness as a center-back or right-back keeps him in the running. Now with Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, Carlos Salcedo is a seasoned defender, albeit one with a decline since his Eintracht Frankfurt days. Tigres man Jesus Alberto Angulo is another possible wild card that could win over Martino at the last minute. Puebla's Israel Reyes is also someone to follow after being included in the latest call-up from Martino.
Predicted selections: Moreno, Araujo, Vasquez, Montes
Tier 4: Marcelo Flores (Arsenal), Alfonso "Ponchito" Gonzalez (Monterrey), Marcel Ruiz (Club Tijuana), Erick Sanchez (Pachuca), Fernando Beltran (Chivas), Luis Chavez (Pachuca), Jose Joaquin Esquivel (FC Juarez), Victor Guzman (Pachuca), Jose Ivan Rodriguez (Leon)
Regardless of an upcoming move from LaLiga to MLS with the Houston Dynamo this summer, Hector Herrera should remain as a key component of El Tri's midfield. Last month, Martino himself claimed that he was the "best footballer that Mexico has." Alongside him in the heart of a 4-3-3 formation, Ajax's Edson Alvarez is another immovable presence in a three-man setup.
But who is the third name in this trio? Although Andres Guardado serves as captain and has an invaluable influence within the roster, it hasn't been out of the ordinary for the 35-year-old Real Betis midfielder to be an option off the bench during qualifiers. Due to recent injury problems, he was also left out of the latest call-up.
Cruz Azul's Carlos "Charly" Rodriguez is another very strong contender for minutes after shining for club and country this year. As seen in a couple of recent El Tri games, both are also able to start together when someone like Alvarez is unavailable.
That's four midfielders selected, possibly leaving one or two more spaces left in the 23-man roster. PSV Eindhoven's Erick Gutierrez should easily be in the conversation after the season he's having abroad, but he doesn't have the same versatility as Monterrey's Luis Romo. As for Sebastian Cordova, Erik Lira, Jonathan dos Santos and Alan Cervantes, they are all currently on the outside looking in.
Of the players remaining, Marcelo Flores, Erick Sanchez and Marcel Ruiz are unlikely to be featured, but they're undoubtedly young wild cards to follow.
Predicted selections: Herrera, Alvarez, Guardado, C. Rodriguez, Romo
Tier 4: Jairo Torres (Atlas), Alejandro Zendejas (Club America), Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy), Benjamin Galdames (Union Espanola), Karel Campos (Club America), Mauro Lainez (Club America), Jesus "Canelo" Angulo (Chivas)
With LAFC star Carlos Vela ruling himself out of the national team picture, the starting spots on the wings will belong to Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. On the left, Oberlin Pineda has been left out of the March roster for World Cup qualifiers, likely due to a lack of minutes at Celta, but he remains the most suitable back-up to Lozano. On the right, Cruz Azul's Uriel Antuna has often appeared as Martino's next option after Corona.
Real Betis' Diego Lainez is on the roster for the March qualifiers but has by no means solidified a plane ticket to Qatar. It would seem unfair to leave the player out who has had decisive performances off the bench for Mexico this year, but a severe lack of club minutes could be enough to keep him out.
Rodolfo Pizarro, back in the mix for the March qualifiers, could make the cut if Martino wants to bring more experience in. Roberto Alvarado is also on the radar as someone who can play in a variety of positions.
Predicted selections: Lozano, Corona, Pineda, Antuna
Tier 2: (none)
Just like the goalkeeper position, up front, it's Raul Jimenez and then everyone else. The Wolves striker is the focal point of Mexico's attack, but after him, the race continues for a backup spot.
In theory, it should be Rogelio Funes Mori, but the Monterrey forward has been disappointing with one goal in eight Octagonal appearances. Injury issues that led to an exclusion from March's Mexico call-up won't do much to help. Club America's Henry Martin should soon surpass Funes Mori in the depth chart, but Martino hasn't given him consistent starts during World Cup qualifiers. Despite Alexis Vega's role that tends to be on the left wing, the Chivas player is also a prospective option thanks to an ability to play as a central forward.
A dark horse is Cruz Azul's 20-year-old striker Santiago Gimenez. Similar to Flores in the midfield, it might be too early to be involved with the final roster, but he contains an immense amount of raw talent. With no other names securing a backup striker spot just yet, Gimenez could be a breakout player in Mexico's final three qualifiers.
Bringing in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez --- Mexico's all-time leading goalscorer --- would be an easy and straightforward fix for the backup role, but he hasn't been involved in a game for El Tri since 2019.
Predicted selections: Jimenez, Funes Mori, Vega
And finally... our projected 23-man squad in full (and final thoughts)
Goalkeepers (3): Guillermo Ochoa, Rodolfo Cota, Alfredo Talavera
Defenders (8): Jesus Gallardo, Gerardo Arteaga, Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez, Julian Araujo, Hector Moreno, Nestor Araujo, Johan Vasquez, Cesar Montes
Midfielders (5): Hector Herrera, Edson Alvarez, Andres Guardado, Carlos "Charly" Rodriguez, Luis Romo
Wingers (4): Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, Orbelin Pineda, Uriel Antuna
Strikers (3): Raul Jimenez, Rogelio Funes Mori, Alexis Vega
Let's take the glass-half-full perspective first. On paper, few national teams would be comfortable facing a Lozano-Jimenez-Corona frontline. The midfield, although aging, is undergoing a transition with "Charly" Rodriguez leading the way. Defensively, Martino has the right tools to eventually make the back line a formidable one. Finally, in net, Ochoa thrives on the biggest of stages and will be sure to add more saves to his highlight reel.
Now that that's out of the way, let's dive into some pessimism.
As exciting as a best XI would look, things could quickly fall apart for Mexico if any of the go-to starters are injured or unavailable. As seen over the past year or so in the attack, Jimenez's injury issues have rarely led to consistent starting line-up featuring the preferred frontline. In the midfield, there's a worrisome shortage of speed whenever Herrera and Guardado are tasked with helping maintain control.
As for the back line, Martino has the right tools, but will he make the correct decisions or stick with some underwhelming names who have been on a decline? Ochoa should be fine in net, but after him, it's tough to feel confident about alternatives.
Mexico should have enough here to make it into the knockout round of a World Cup, but as per usual, it's up in the air if they'll last long afterwards.