It took the better part of an hour for beleaguered Mexico coach José Manuel de la Torre to confront his detractors after the 2-1 defeat to Panama.
After another torrid afternoon in charge of El Tri and the shower of abuse and flying objects he received as he walked off the Rose Bowl field, he likely needed the extra time to process the disaster that unfolded in front of him and share his thoughts with his inexperienced and revamped charges.
When he finally emerged to confront his prosecutors, he mustered the defiance and the polish his players lacked. He coolly deflected the increasingly venomous inquiries – the same questions fueling irate supporters across his country right now – and rejected the notion that this job and this increasingly dire situation exceeds his capabilities.
“No, no,” de la Torre said in his native Spanish. “I am answering directly and clearly: no. The objective is to qualify for the World Cup. Of course, we have this objective to try and win the Gold Cup title, just like we've had other objectives. Some we have fulfilled, some we haven't. If if ends today, we would qualify. Some circumstances that have come upon us. Not all of them are good. All teams – even Real Madrid and Barcelona – have these types of situations. We have to keep working in order to get back into the best circumstances possible for you.”
De la Torre faces this sort of scrutiny on a daily basis now. He understands how to handle it and stick with the proper message. But trying to figure out a way to dispel the unbearable pressure with on-field results? Well, that part seems beyond him at the moment.
This abject display against a disciplined and well-organized Panama side underscored the pervasive concerns about El Tri. De la Torre altered his formation (4-3-3), changed his approach (more direct to the front three) and trusted a different group of players to produce the result his first team cannot at this point.
Instead of finding a way through resolute opposition, those new charges dawdled in midfield, played balls over the top and stumbled in its attempts to create incisive sequences in the final third. It led to yet another match where Mexico looked absolutely nothing like Mexico.
“We are observant,” De la Torre said. “We have seen with our own eyes that we have not played great soccer. We had some possession, some opportunities, but it was not the soccer we are accustomed to seeing our national team play. We were imprecise. We were a little behind the rhythm and the intensity of the game.”
De la Torre can correctly blame the circumstances for this disjointed display on some level, but his protestations do not excuse the overall downturn of the program this year. His players – some burdened by gold medals and most encumbered by withering expectations – buckle under the magnitude of the task ahead of them. And the continued failure to win matches with a talented squad leaves little room for excuses, viable or not.
The staggering setbacks incurred this year create a situation where de la Torre – even if he survives this Gold Cup and takes his top players into the fraught and vital World Cup qualifier against Honduras in September – cannot extricate himself from this current mire. This crisis of confidence isn't some passing concern. It is an issue that could very well – if it has not already – endanger the primary goal of booking a place in Brazil if he remains in charge.
For the moment, this tattered outfit remains under his auspices. He must mold this new group of players into a formidable unit in short order and turn around this currently sputtering Gold Cup defense. And he must not lose sight of the fact that this tournament represents only a digression – though a potentially harmful one, if it continues in this fashion – along the way to weightier objectives.
“We are here with a project, a very ambitious project,” de la Torre said. “We have been very focused. We have not gotten the results we want. We are going to keep working hard in order to get better. There is no streak – good or bad – that lasts forever. We are going to keep working to get those better streaks.”
Unless the uptick in form occurs quickly, de la Torre will not remain in charge to oversee them. His room for error evaporated some time ago. He must produce the necessary solutions quickly in order to avoid more afternoons like this one and steer El Tri back on the proper course. If he does not produce immediate results, then his tenure will end and someone else will try to rectify the concerns he could not.