PASADENA, Calif. -- For a little over 80 minutes on Saturday night against Peru, it looked as if a dark period for Mexico's men's national team would extend one game further as they approach the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Before kicking off the weekend's friendly at the Rose Bowl, Mexico had one win in their last five games, which built additional tension for manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino and his side after a questionable run through World Cup qualifying and poor friendly results earlier this year.
During a media day on Tuesday, themes of fan discontent, injury problems and leadership issues surrounded the national team. Martino looked frustrated behind the microphone at the media day, admitting that Mexico haven't played their best soccer since 2019-20, while also listing injuries for key players like Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Raul Jimenez, Houston Dynamo DP Hector Herrera, Ajax's Jorge Sanchez and Monterrey duo Rogelio Funes Mori and Luis Romo. Sevilla's Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, arguably El Tri's top player, was also unavailable in the international break after suffering a leg injury this summer that will likely keep him out of the World Cup.
Off the field, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) has dealt with a chaotic time of its own. Coupled with complications in the women's national team and at youth level, FMF president Mikel Arriola announced sweeping changes in July. Gerardo Torrado and Ignacio Hierro were fired from their respective posts as general sporting director and sporting director of national teams. Luis Perez was also let go as the men's U20 coach. Women's senior coach Monica Vergara would eventually lose her position as well.
Martino held on to his post, despite failing to win the latest CONCACAF Nations League, the 2021 Gold Cup and going through four consecutive games without a victory against El Tri's U.S. men's national team rivals. Rumors of his possible exit from the FMF after the World Cup have led to a disharmonious and potentially cataclysmic end to 2022, but back on the field at Pasadena this weekend, a glimmer of hope emerged for all involved.
¡Gooooooooool de @miseleccionmx! 🔥🥵— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) September 25, 2022
Eeeeel Chuuucky Lozaaaaaano... ¡Aparece Hirving y la manda a guardar! Lo está ganando México. 😎
🇲🇽 1-0 🇵🇪#CaminoAQatar | #HechoDeLosMexicanos | #ArribaPerú
🔴 EN VIVO
📺 TUDN y @univision
📱👉 https://t.co/AnPeBomrSa pic.twitter.com/Ps8iDC9NQs
In front of a raucous 62,729 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, El Tri eventually looked enlivened after a dull start to the game through second-half substitutions for Uriel Antuna, Santiago Gimenez, Andres Guardado and Orbelin Pineda. Possibly due to desperation in changing the script that appeared pessimistic once again, there was excellent movement and playmaking in the final third that helped lead to a decisive corner in the 85th minute, which provided star winger Hirving "Chucky" Lozano with a goal that sent the Rose Bowl into a frenzy. and secured a 1-0 win.
The 27-year-old did well to lead attacking efforts, and eventually found the game-winner late into the second half. Lozano was emotional after scoring his first goal in 2022 for Mexico, while fans sang his name to the usual tune of "Seven Nation Army." Chants of "El Chu-cky Lo-za-no" were by far the loudest that they've been heard in years, joyous in the trust that the Napoli player had created a necessary step forward in Mexican soccer.
Confidence at an all-game high, it was easy to forget about any of the problems El Tri has had on or off the field. The Rose Bowl became a party, and unlike the dire scenes that have become the norm at many Mexico matches, there was elation in their first of two World Cup "sendoff" games this month in California that ended in a 1-0 victory.
"A victory is always important, and even more so against such a difficult team," Lozano said to TUDN after scoring the game-winner. "I think they made the match very tough for us."
Even the typically serious and tired Martino was beaming after the game, knowing not just that Mexico had earned a vital result, but that also he could have an unexpected leader through Lozano.
"After so many years in Europe, obviously, it makes a footballer evolve in every way," a proud Martino said about the Napoli winger after the match. "It's clear that he is evolving, not only in the soccer part, but also in the professional part and in the human part."
It wasn't just about Chucky, but about the entire squad as they celebrated the goal. Through a release of tension, El Tri desperately needed this result ahead of the World Cup and above the criticism that has been placed upon them since struggling to recreate the magic of Martino's first couple of years in 2019 and 2020. In the postmatch news conference, Martino noted that the team is "much more similar" to the one that reached a perceived peak a couple years ago.
It's questionable to buy into the idea that Mexico are truly turning things around after a number of head-scratching performances over the last several months, but if they claimed another victory this Tuesday against Colombia at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium (which would mark just their second consecutive victory this year), there would be hope that Mexico's final two pre-World Cup friendlies could propel the team towards greater things at Qatar this November.
The idea of gradual changes and last-minute long shots might be unrealistic for their World Cup chances, but the same could be said of Lozano's lone attempt back in 2018 that shocked Germany in a 1-0 defeat during the World Cup.
Regardless of injury problems across the squad and issues behind the scenes within the front office, Mexico can continue making small steps forward this month, with the help of an unlikely leader in Lozano and with the dreams of bigger and prominent steps this November.