Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio took unorthodox path passion for learning into 2018 World Cup

Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio is the odd manager out at Russia 2018.

Of the 32 coaches in charge of a national team for the World Cup, only five didn’t have at least an average professional playing career. For three of those who didn’t — Brazil’s Tite, Iceland’s Heimir Hallgrimsson and Iran’s Carlos Queiroz — the path to management involved climbing up the coaching ladder in their home countries.

Colombian-born Osorio, on the other hand, has embarked on an alternative, cross-border journey since giving up on making it as a player at the age of 24. At times, the 57-year-old’s journey has appeared desperate, but the ultimate goal has been consistent and involved quasi-religious dedication: becoming a respected football manager.

Just days before Russia 2018 gets underway, Osorio stands before the biggest stage on which his progressive and sometimes provocative ideas will be showcased.

“I have prepared my entire life for a World Cup,” Osorio recently told ESPN FC in Los Angeles. “This is it.”

“I feel a big responsibility to my family, my parents, my wife and boys, with Mexicans, with my players, because they trust me.”

Osorio has won over the Mexico players, who praise him both publicly and privately. The closeness of the group is arguably El Tri‘s biggest strength at Russia 2018. But the wider public and media in Mexico — so demanding that Mexico legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco advised Osorio to imagine he was wearing an atmospheric diving suit when dealing with the critics — have not been convinced of Osorio’s methods, his rotations and his lengthy explanations of footballing decisions.

This is a very different person and manager from what Mexico had four years ago, when the brash, popular and quote-friendly Miguel Herrera would fire up El Tri fans with the promise of victory only to ultimately be out-coached by Louis van Gaal in the Round of 16 game against the Netherlands.

For example, ask Osorio a seemingly innocuous question about how often and far he runs each week and the simple answer is three or four times. But he doesn’t leave it there. Osorio explains how he completes 40- to 45-minute treadmill sessions based on his heart rate via interval splits, moving the level of the treadmill up or down each minute. Distance doesn’t come into it; he just makes sure his heart gets the right workout to withstand the strain of being a football manager.

“I do it to train my heart, not for my looks,” quipped Osorio with a wry smile.

How Osorio got into coaching

Osorio's biggest break came as Man City's conditioning coach from 2001-05.
Osorio’s biggest break came as Man City’s conditioning coach from 2001 to 2005.

Spend time with Mexico’s manager and you get the impression that if El Tri is to be out-coached at this World Cup, it definitely won’t be through lack of preparation on Osorio’s part. He says his self-discipline and attention to detail originate from his parents, with his father (who studied medicine) the inspiration behind his getting up early and frantic note-taking.

The Osorio family hails from the rural town of Santa Rosa de Cabal (population 60,000), which is almost equidistant from Colombia’s three biggest cities: Bogota, Medellin and Cali. The town is known for its coffee but has “very few things” for younger people to do, Osorio said. He considers himself fortunate that his middle-class parents, whom he still speaks to every day, moved to the regional capital of Pereira (only 30 minutes away) when he was 12. When he visits that area, he is reminded often of what his life could’ve been like without football.

“Fortunately for me, I found in football my way of life because now when I go back, a lot of my friends drink a lot or haven’t done too much with their life really,” Osorio said. “It’s very basic stuff, which is fine because I don’t have a right to judge, but I always thought, ‘I need to get out. I need to be in big cities, get to know the world and hopefully be somebody big in football.'”

“I’m still working on it.”

At age 18, Colombia’s capital, Bogota, came calling after Osorio finished high school. He left home, which he said was unheard of at the time given that his family had the means to support him at home. The football bug pushed midfielder Osorio to work hard to establish himself at Deportivo Pereira, but the experience of ultimately failing to make it as a pro profoundly influenced him. It provided added motivation to crawl up the ladder of the soccer world and laid the foundation for one for his cornerstone coaching philosophies: the rotation policy.

“One thing that marked me as far as giving players opportunities is the fact that I did not get one, because back in those days in Colombia there was a lot of money from the cartels, and most teams had like eight foreigners,” Osorio said. “So it was a very difficult situation and difficult for me to play football, impossible.

“I was on the bench. We had a reserve [team], and I always had good games. I was the captain and I was an influential player. Nevertheless, I didn’t get a proper chance in the first team, so I always keep that in mind. I resented that because I needed a chance, I deserved a chance and I never had it.”

“So now, when I give players a chance, I do something rewarding for myself; I’m doing my job properly and giving these players a chance to succeed.”

After Osorio realized that he would never make it as a player, the next stop was the United States for an exchange program at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1984.

“When I was in Colombia and I decided to come to the United States, it was because I could put together English language and the chance for me to study physical education. And I always knew I did not have a very prominent soccer career, so the best way for me to push myself into professional football was through becoming a conditioning coach.”

“Then four months later, when my visa expired — the student program was for four months — I decided to go to New York and work in construction. That’s when I started working illegally for almost a year and a half, playing amateur football for money and trying to save to go to school.”

Once he’d saved up enough money from jobs in kitchens and in construction, Osorio enrolled in Southern Connecticut State University, graduating in 1990 with a degree in exercise science. But from there, his professional life underwent a period of uncertainty.

“We were living in Little Neck, Long Island,” Osorio said. “There was a Jewish community, and me and Julieth [Osorio’s wife] were the only Spanish-speaking couple living there. And when the chance came, I was working for two amateur clubs. One was called Criollos, it was like a Colombian team, and the other was the Staten Island Vipers.”

“I was making just enough money to survive. But I was also doing coaching on the side in the gym, just doing the conditioning side for any top people, executives, some sports people and businessmen.”

With his life at a crossroads in 1997, Osorio took a chance and went to England to obtain a degree in science and football at Liverpool John Moores University.

“When the chance came to go to [England], I put my money together,” Osorio said. “We sold my wife’s car — back then, she was my girlfriend — and we sold watches basically to put all the money together to allow me to go to school.”

Osorio scouted out a room overlooking Liverpool’s training ground while he worked on his degree and traveled around the country, visiting such places as Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road.

After Liverpool, it was back to his family in the States for Osorio, and the search for his first proper job in football began a couple of years short of his 40th birthday.

A passion for learning

Across his 16-year career in coaching, Osorio has built a reputation for being a tireless learner and exhaustive innovator.
Across his 16-year career in coaching, Osorio has built a reputation for being a tireless learner and an exhaustive innovator.

Osorio’s networking skills have gotten him meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson, Louis van Gaal, Marcelo Bielsa, Guus Hiddink, Arsene Wenger, Gareth Southgate (among others) in the year before the World Cup. 

He remains a student at heart (after he was let go by New York Red Bulls in 2009, he headed straight to Barcelona to attend Pep Guardiola’s training sessions), but back at the turn of the century, Osorio wanted to learn as much as possible about all aspects of football — the Dutch national team of the 1970s is still his major influence — and he randomly called up then-D.C. United coach Thomas Rongen, an Amsterdam native who had played with Johan Cruyff and under Rinus Michels.

“He wanted to break things down into almost minute details,” Rongen told ESPN FC. “[Osorio has] always been a very interesting human being and extremely driven, and I think that’s why he’s been successful. He had a very clear vision of how he wants to play.”

“He’s almost maybe too rigid, but you can also appreciate that. He’s a bit of a romantic on one hand but with a steely demeanor in regards to certain things that are important to him on and off the field. The way he’s introduced his mental things, training methods and things like that. He’s very modern.”

Osorio got a job in 2000 as an assistant with the MetroStars under Octavio Zambrano, but his big break came when he was chosen from 24 candidates to become Manchester City’s conditioning coach. He initially turned down the offer, only accepting the Man City job after Kevin Keegan had taken over and personally called him.

The recommendation for the City job in 2001 came from U.S. coaching guru Vern Gambetta, who originally had been contacted about the position. Gambetta had met Osorio at a national soccer coaching conference and struck up a friendship pretty quickly.

“He came up to me and introduced himself, and we started talking and he just started asking questions about all these different things I’d [written],” Gambetta told ESPN FC. “I thought, ‘Boy, this guy is amazing.’ He’s got this hunger, you could see right away.”

Osorio visited Gambetta in Florida when the latter was coaching at Tampa Bay Mutiny, sleeping in his office and starting a conversation about “functional training” that continues today. “I swear he never slept,” Gambetta said. “At night, he’d say, ‘Vern, what do you think of this?’ And I’d go, ‘Juan, I’m tired, I’ve got to go to sleep!'”

Gambetta is considered a father of functional training, which focuses on training for specific positions and roles, and says Osorio is right up there with the best he’s seen in his 49-year coaching career.

“Juan had a whole system [of functional training in soccer] before the Portuguese had written anything about tactical periodization,” said Gambetta, who grew up Mexico and will be supporting El Tri in Russia.

“Osorio doesn’t indulge fools, he doesn’t indulge the press, he’s not looking for fame and adulation; he wants to be the best that he can be,” Gambetta said. “I think that knowing the culture and the Mexican press — and they are like wolves — he obviously has the players on his side, and that’s huge.”

“You can’t fool the players. They know he’s real and that he’ll put them in a place to win.”

Osorio spent time in MLS as an assistant for the MetroStars and head coach for the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire.
Osorio spent time in MLS as an assistant for the MetroStars and head coach for the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire.

Osorio acknowledges that financially, his life became more comfortable after he got the City job, and he took advantage of his opportunity early on, according to former Manchester City winger Shaun Wright-Phillips. His training methodology involved much more ball work and drills based around game situations, something that wasn’t too common at the time, Wright-Phillips said.

“He came in with a new philosophy that was unique really,” Wright-Phillips told ESPN FC, stressing that he believes Osorio would succeed as a manager in Europe. “He was the first person that I know of that brought that style to the UK.”

Osorio’s relationship with Wright-Phillips continued when the winger signed from City for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, with Osorio picking his former player’s brain about Mourinho’s methods through regular phone calls.

The City job was Osorio’s foot in the door of the football world. His stock rose after stints with Millonarios in Colombia, Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls in MLS followed by a return to Colombia with Once Caldas and Atletico Nacional. From there, Osorio had an unsuccessful spell with Puebla in Mexico and then moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil before taking on the significant challenge of managing the Mexican national team in the fall of 2015.

As Mexico manager, each training session has begun with Osorio personally laying out cones on the field. It’s a testament to his attention to detail and hints at a sense of humility in line with the long and unpredictable road he has traveled. Now on the brink of his biggest moment and with his ambitions surely lying in Europe after the World Cup — though there could be opportunities in the United States or with the Colombian national team — Osorio wants to soak it all in while staying focused.

“I will tell you: if there is one emotion that I want to feel on June 17 when that game [against Germany] comes, it is that I am calm, because there are so many things … the last-minute things,” he said. “The coach, the starting line-ups, how they are going to play.”

“We’re going to put a team that can play a Plan A and Plan B. Who is going to run after them? There is so much preparation. But if I am calm, then the game will be Mexico vs. Germany, and we will see what the game brings on the day.”

The 57-year-old from rural Colombia may not have come anywhere near playing in a World Cup, but there can’t be many coaches who have prepared so meticulously to manage in one.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.