El Tri Olympics roster choices made easier by FIFA decision

Luis Romo was Man of the Match for Mexico against Panama. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Luis Romo was Man of the Match for Mexico against Panama. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /
El Tri Olimpico v Panama
Diego Lainez knocked this shot into the net in minute 21 after being sprung free by Luis Romo. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

This was supposed to be a very difficult day for Jaime Lozano. Mexico’s Olympic team coach was going to have to cut three players to reach 18, the limit on roster spots for the Tokyo Games and the speculation about who would chase gold for El Tri was running rampant.

The Under-24 squad even “impersonated” the Mexico senior team against Panama in Nashville on Wednesday night (an easy 3-0 victory), as part of the national soccer federation’s strategy to facilitate the cut-down decisions. It also served as the team’s final match before departing for Japan.

But before El Mini Tri took the field, FIFA announced it was increasing the roster limit for the Olympics to 22 players, instead of 18. With 21 players in camp, Lozano suddenly was no longer burdened with shattering a few players’ Olympic dreams. Instead, he had the luxury of adding an extra name (most likely Cruz Azul goalie Sebastián Jurado). And FIFA gave all managers two extra days to comply with the rule change.

El Tri enjoys stroll in the park, the Tennessee Titans’ park that is

The last-minute change gave Lozano the freedom to use the exhibition match against Panama to test a starting line-up, instead of as a final audition for players “on the bubble.” This was also the first opportunity for the three “overage” players to see game action with El Tri Olímpico.

Well, “game action” is a relative term. One of the “overage players” – goalie Guillermo Ochoa – did not face a single shot from Panama during the entire game. With eight World Cup games under his belt, Ochoa was an easy decision for “Jimmy” Lozano.

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The other two “senior” players are midfielder Luis Romo (Cruz Azul) and forward Henry Martín (América).

Romo – arguably the MVP of the Cementeros’ run to the title last season – looked majestic in the first half, sitting as a deep-lying midfielder from where he quarterbacked the offense and marshalled the defensive pressure in front of the back line. His long lead pass in minute 21 sent Diego Lainez in on goal and the young lefty deposited the ball in the net for a 1-0 lead.

Starting the second half, Lozano played Romo further forward where he was more directly involved in the offense, but he didn’t look nearly as effective.

Martín was chosen to provide scoring and leadership in attack. El Tri had a hole up front during the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers and his all-out hustle and willingness to defend up high as well as track back were characteristics Lozano was looking for.

Henry struggled to contribute in the first half as he got few sniffs at the ball. Jorge Sánchez and Lainez were poor providers, both repeatedly firing errant crosses or watching centering passes get intercepted.

El Tri went up 2-0 in minute 57 (Monterrey defender César Montes booked his first national team goal with a header off a corner kick) and the game bogged down a bit as Panama got a little chippy.

After Roberto Alvarado came on with 25 minutes remaining, Mexico’s offense perked up a bit. “El Piojo” sped up the attack with some nice one-touch passing, working well with his Cruz Azul teammate Romo. A minute before the final whistle, El Tri made it 3-0, with Henry converting a nifty give-and-go from “Piojo.”

Sub Fernando Beltrán (Chivas) fed Henry who was standing with his back to goal at the edge of the box. Henry blocked it back to “Piojo” and immediately spun toward the net. Alvarado one-timed a pass between two defenders and right into Henry’s path. The Aguilas’ scoring ace did not waste his chance, slotting home inside the near post.

El Tri Olímpico will now return to Mexico to prepare for the upcoming trip to Tokyo. We won’t know the final list of 22 (though only 18 can dress out on game day) until the weekend, but here is a best guess:

Goalies: Guillermo Ochoa (América); Luis Malagón (Necaxa); Sebastián Jurado (Cruz Azul)

Defenders: César Montes (Monterrey); Johan Vázquez (UNAM); Jesús Angulo (Atlas); Erick Aguirre (Pachuca); Jorge Sánchez (América); Vladimir Loroña (Tijuana)

Midfielders: Luis Romo (Cruz Azul); Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul); Sebastián Córdova (América), Carlos Rodríguez (Monterrey); J.J. Esquivel (FC Juárez); Jesús Angulo (Chivas); Fernando Beltrán (Chivas)

Forwards: Henry Martín (América); Diego Lainez (Real Betis); Alexis Vega (Chivas); Uriel Antuna (Chivas); Eduardo Aguirre (Santos Laguna)

El Tri coach avoids headaches, heartbreak

Before Wednesday’s announcement increasing team rosters, it appeared that coach Lozano had narrowed down his cut list to a coin flip between Santos’ opportunistic striker “El Mudo” Aguirre and Chivas playmaker “Canelo” Angulo.

Once “Piojo” Alvarado accepted the invitation to play (his participation was in doubt after his wife Dayana Gómez suffered a miscarriage in May), the midfield position was well-manned. Lozano appeared to be leaning toward “El Mudo” who would serve as back-up to Henry Martín, a necessity because El Tri’s second striker – Alexis Vega – is not a classic No. 9.

As for “Canelo,” he has distinct and desirable characteristics (dribbling, passing, finding open spaces) and is versatile. But Lozano already had two left-footed midfielders – Diego Lainez and Sebastián Córdova – making it likely that “Canelo” would be the odd man out, joining Fernando Beltrán and Vladimir Loroña as castoffs.

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Fortunately, “Jimmy” was spared the anguish and El Tri Olímpico appears set for its journey. Mexico opens its Olympic schedule on July 22 against France. Host Japan (July 25) and South Africa (July 28) comprise the rest of Group A.