Mexico interim coach Jaime "Jimmy" Lozano took his first significant risk with an altered starting XI on Sunday's group stage closer of the Gold Cup, and in return, he was given his first defeat after losing 1-0 to Qatar.
With a spot in the knockout rounds of the tournament already guaranteed through two statement-making victories earlier in the group stage -- 3-1 vs. Haiti and 4-0 vs. Honduras -- Lozano rotated his XI through six changes.
On paper, one could forgive the manager for doing so. The 44-year-old wanted to give a handful of his usual starters a break, and in that process, he also had an opportunity to give minutes to backups. Despite his familiarity with a strong core of the roster that he previously led in the 2020 Olympics, the coach was still attempting to piece everything together after being hired just a few days before the start of the Gold Cup.
"It was to see other players, give rest [to some starters], also being careful with some of the [yellow] cards we had," Lozano said postmatch about his changes. Following two games in a row with the same lineup, Lozano brought on Santiago Gimenez, Ozziel Herrera, Carlos Rodriguez, Gerardo Arteaga, Israel Reyes and Julian Araujo.
And to be fair to Lozano, it wasn't as if his alterations failed to create chances in the final third for Mexico.
While Qatar needed just one shot to score that arrived from a defensive error from El Tri, Lozano's players racked up a total of 25 efforts on goal with an xG of 2.27. As for Qatar, they earned a tally of only 0.05 yet won the match.
"There were very, very clear opportunities, from Santi [Gimenez], from Edson [Alvarez], also not sure if it was Diego [Lainez] or someone else there. I think there are five, six very, very clear opportunities, which I'm sure that in any other game would have gone in, and today in the end, we ended up taking a defeat," Lozano said.
The players should earn some of the blame for the loss. Lozano, whether it be through his 4-3-3 setup or his desperate second-half changes that literally threw on every midfield and forward option from the bench onto the pitch, did everything in his power to push his players to get at least an equalizer. Even with that leading to an eye-catching total of 19 shots from within Qatar's 18-yard box, not one El Tri player was able to find the back of the net.
Defensively, on the lone goal allowed, Mexico's backline was a mess in the 27th-minute gift to Qatar. With two central defenders, Alvarez and Reyes, out of position, Qatar easily roamed into the final third after intercepting a ball from Alvarez. Right-back Araujo then had two players to mark on a cross that he awkwardly backed away from, leaving Hazem Shehata with a golden chance to connect with the ball off a header. Goalkeeper and captain Guillermo Ochoa, not having the speed he once had in his younger days, then wasn't quick enough to keep it out.
"That goal, surely in a club [situation], wouldn't have happened," Lozano said. "These defensive questions and of the defensive area are very workable, it's something that we focus a lot on as coaching staff."
And yet, it's Lozano himself who decided to take these risks. It's understandable to want to mix things up after already claiming a spot in the knockout rounds, effectively as group winners due to their goal difference, but there's no real room for experimentation when you were just given the job on the week that the Gold Cup started.
For the pessimists and skeptics out there, there's also an argument to be made for sticking with the best XI possible through the tournament and gaining whatever cohesion you can along the way. As unfair as it is for Lozano, the expectation and hopes from those in charge at the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) will be the Gold Cup title. No matter the limited time to prepare with their new coach, El Tri should be the favorites when you consider that fellow title-contenders Canada and the United States sent "B" teams to the tournament.
Keyword there: Should be the favorites. Gold Cup winners need depth, and on Sunday, most if not all of the alternate players failed to make a great case for themselves. Araujo, Reyes, Rodriguez and Gimenez were all highly questionable with their decision-making and impact. Herrera and Arteaga were better overall, but it was Arteaga alone who finished as the lone backup that could claim that they took their chance.
However, going forward, the big question now is if this is simply a storm in a teacup. We also can't forget Lozano is only here because of a Mexican soccer structure that has been in a crisis. The issues seen with El Tri stem far beyond the Gold Cup and 2023. Now, it's Lozano's unenvious task to change that narrative as he enters the knockout round.
With five days to prepare for Mexico's quarterfinal -- with the opponent to be discovered on Tuesday -- El Tri will need to bounce back. Crisis or not, ambitions are high for one of the Concacaf giants that have made at least the semifinals in the last eight editions of the tournament.
Recently losing ground to the more imposing U.S. men's national team setup, losing 3-0 in last month's Concacaf Nations League semifinal, Mexico are in desperate need of a regional trophy as well.