Despite draw v Jamaica, Mexico coach Diego Cocca needs time

MEXICO CITY — To be fair to new Mexico manager Diego Cocca, he did say there would be some initial problems. After Sunday’s 2-2 draw at home to Jamaica, his words ring true.

During a pre-game news conference ahead of the CONCACAF Nations League match, Cocca had this to say about the early days of his new job: “We’re going to make mistakes, without a doubt. There’s no chance that everything will work out with three to four days of training, with three to four days of us being together, but what I do want to see is an iron conviction.”

In front of more than 65,000 supporters at the Estadio Azteca, Cocca probably didn’t think that things would go quite this badly. In his second game in charge and in his first match at home in the Mexico City venue, El Tri limped their way to a draw that narrowly qualified them for the knockout rounds.

Even before the first kick of a game that was temporarily paused due to thunderstorms, the energy was already tense and charged with scattered boos that were pointed at Cocca during the roster announcements. Why? Just days after earning a 2-0 away win over Suriname in his debut, fans remained frustrated that he wasn’t able to provide a classic gana, gusta y golea (roughly translated to “win, entertain and score plenty”) result against the minnows.

That anger seeped through Mexico City, and the jeers grew louder after conceding a goal to Bobby De Cordova-Reid in the seventh minute. Players like Guillermo Ochoa, Jorge Sanchez and later Raul Jimenez were singled out by some of these boos.

“People have the right to say what they want and give their opinion on what they want; we’re strong, we’re committed and intending to work and continue on our path,” Cocca said during the post-game news conference.

Winger Hirving Lozano took a different approach about fans voicing their irritations.

“They have to support us, they have to be with us. No teammate wants to lose,” Lozano told TUDN. “The problem is that sometimes the media are the ones that affect that, the relationship between the fans and us.”

Not wanting to be left out of the protests, the weather voiced its own concerns after belting out rain and lightning. Although Mexico would bounce back with a well-timed finish and goal from Orbelin Pineda that made it 1-1 in the first half, an angry and thunderous strike of lightning shook the venue moments after Edson Alvarez scored an own-goal in the 32nd minute, thereby giving Jamaica a stunning and unexpected 2-1 lead.

Luckily for Mexico, the protestations from the heavens were enough to temporarily pause the game one minute later, providing Mexico with well-needed relief. Reinvigorated with a timeout thanks to mother nature, El Tri responded and leveled the scoreline once again after Lozano scored off the penalty spot in the 47th minute.

That’s as far as Mexico’s luck would go. Launching 25 shots in total and racking up an xG of 3.04 (in comparison to the xG tally of 0.6 for Jamaica), El Tri‘s attack grew increasingly frustrated with big chances missed and others that just couldn’t hit the target.

In spite of this, after the match Cocca remained positive.

“We generated, I think, between 14 and 18 scoring situations … we overflowed the right, the left. We tried everywhere and the team kept up the intensity,” the manager said. “So that gives me the possibility or the peace of mind, if you will, of knowing that we’re on the right track.”

The same couldn’t be said for the fanbase that was growing more angry by the minute without a game-winner.

As is often the case when things aren’t going Mexico’s way, two offensive instances of the anti-gay goalkeeper chant emerged in the dying stages of the game when Cocca’s frontline had issues with finding the back of the net. The scoreline held at 2-2, the stadium PA took matters into their own hands by blasting music every time Jamaican goalkeeper Jahmali Waite took a kick.

The Mexican Football Federation was given a fine and one-match supporters’ ban in a FIFA competition fixture due to discriminatory chants by fans at the World Cup, and it’s a situation which continues to dog the national team.

In what was supposed to be a celebration of a new era under Cocca, it instead felt like dreary event once the referee blew the final whistle.

The weather was undoubtedly a factor as some players had bad first touches, but that doesn’t excuse the poor passes that Mexico made in dangerous areas for Jamaica. Defensively, individual mistakes were a highly apparent setback for Cocca’s roster, and at certain moments, the players looked almost perplexed when Jamaica intercepted balls and sprinted forward into threatening areas.

Perhaps most worrisome of all for Mexico was the finishing. Almost as if former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino had never left, there was the usual and almost predictable pattern of Mexico doing nearly everything right in the attack until needing to either hit the target or provide the correct final pass.

Regarding Cocca, there’s fault for not being able to figure out how to properly win the game with his tactical adjustments, but there also needs to be a recognition that he hasn’t had enough time to truly have an influence. With an expanded roster in the international break that allowed him to look at a long list of players, it shouldn’t be controversial that he split the group into a younger squad against Suriname and an experienced team against a more difficult Jamaica.

As highlighted by the roster selection that featured a strong majority of the players that were involved in the latest World Cup, Cocca isn’t looking to start a revolution. In the same manner that he was able to find success with Atlas through back-to-back Liga MX titles in the 2021 Apertura and 2022 Clausura, the Argentine coach is one who values pragmatism and caution. Tactically, that moderate approach has also been apparent through an avoidance of using his usual three-man defence, and instead sticking with the four-man setup that was preferred by the previous coach.

Overall, it was an ugly performance and a near disastrous result, but Cocca hasn’t had enough time to leave his mark yet and deserves the benefit of the doubt. For what it’s worth, in his first few weeks, he also seems content with what he’s seen so far.

“I’m happy with the unity of the group, with what was done on the field, with the number of goal-scoring situations that we created,” Cocca said, occasionally flashing a smile. “I’m with them, I’m with the players”

That said, the honeymoon period, if there ever actually is one in Mexican soccer, should soon come to a close. On the docket, he’s got a friendly on April 19 against United States to continue to fine-tune his methods before needing to dive into the Nations League semis and the Gold Cup this summer.

Narrowly sneaking past his first international window with an unconvincing win and unexciting draw, teams won’t be as forgiving in upcoming competitions if he doesn’t implement his methods to avoid some of the mistakes that were on display against Jamaica.