What next for Mexico after World Cup exit? Who’ll be coach?

AL KHOR, Qatar — Amid the drama and chaos of the 2022 World Cup as the final spots in the round of 16 are decided, Mexico have already moved on following their exit and are thinking about 2026.

Less than 24 hours after their elimination in the group stage (a first for since 1978) and seeing Gerardo “Tata” Martino announce after Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia that he is out as manager, Mexican Football Federation (FMF) president Yon de Luisa and men’s national teams sporting director Jaime Ordiales spoke about what’s next for El Tri.

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Over the past few weeks, local soccer club Al Khor SC and their stadium have served as Mexico’s outlying — and isolated — home for training and World Cup prep. While other national teams set up camp near the noisy center in Qatar’s capital of Doha, Mexico instead aimed to insulate themselves about an hour’s drive north of downtown — roughly an hour and 45 minutes using public transportation. That distance away from the heart of the World Cup seemed to multiply overnight.

Despite defeating Saudi Arabia 2-1 at the end of the group stage on Wednesday, a lack of goals in a previous 2-0 loss to Argentina and 0-0 draw with Poland meant Mexico finished third in the table, snapping a seven-tournament run (going back to 1994) in which El Tri had made it to every round of 16.

“We’re embarrassed and we have to apologize,” said Ordiales to media in a modest gymnasium space that easily resembled that of a typical American high school. “It’s necessary to face this failure and this makes us responsible to have to show the professional embarrassment that we have.”

During the somber news conference that lasted a little over 15 minutes, Ordiales also confirmed that Martino was out after the manager stated on Wednesday that his contract was up.

“With a failure like this it is impossible for him to continue,” Ordiales said. “I know he is a hard worker, I’ve seen him every day, but we work for the national team and the best thing to do right now is to look elsewhere.”

Martino out and no more 2022 World Cup for Mexico … so what’s next?

At the very least in the near future, those in charge of the FMF are staying put. When asked if either Ordiales or De Luisa was considering a resignation, De Luisa immediately shut down the idea.

“A resignation is not necessary and now that this cycle ends, the [league] owners will decide whether to continue this or not,” said the FMF president.

While Ordiales has the benefit of the doubt due to only taking the job in the summer, De Luisa is worthy of criticism due to his involvement in the full World Cup cycle leading up to Qatar 2022. Once an executive with Televisa who also worked with Liga MX giants Club America, De Luisa stepped into his role four years ago in 2018. Whether club owners decide to let him continue or not, the president laid out vague guidelines regarding the changes he was hoping to make in Liga MX that could potentially help Mexican soccer.

“We will be making structural changes,” De Luisa said. “Multi-ownership [of clubs], promotion and relegation, the number of foreign players [in Liga MX].”

Similar promises have been made in the past by those running Mexican soccer, albeit with mixed results regarding implementation, enforcement and follow-through. In their defense, Liga MX president Mike Arriola did say in a statement on Thursday that the league would also support any decisions the federation made, but will that be enough to truly revive the national team that appears to be regressing?

Who are the main candidates to take over as manager?

The other matter revolves around coaching. No matter what changes are made around the FMF and domestic leagues, finding the right person to then select and lead those players into the 2026 World Cup will be just as significant.

At the moment, Pachuca’s Guillermo Almada is the strongest candidate for manager. The 56-year-old Uruguayan led Pachuca to a 2022 Liga MX Apertura title earlier in the fall, all while providing plenty of opportunities for up-and-coming players who emerged from the club’s famed academy setup.

In a national team process that is desperate for a generational change before 2026 — Mexico had the second-oldest squad at this World Cup, with an average player age of 28.5 years — having someone like Almada who has not only helped support young Mexican players, but secured a championship with them through an attack-minded style of play, can be beneficial.

That said, Almada can be a bit too hot-headed at times on the sideline, and if the FMF are looking for someone to bring more calm to the proceedings, Necaxa coach Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz is another noteworthy choice.

With mid-table side Toluca, Ambriz transformed an unassuming roster into something far greater than the sum of its parts with a well-organized and highly motivated approach that saw them reach the final against Pachuca. Once an assistant coach in LaLiga and a manager in Spain’s second division, the 57-year-old brings experience from abroad that could elevate Mexican players.

Former national team coach Miguel “Piojo” Herrera, who is coincidentally unemployed following an underwhelming tenure with Tigres, will also be in the conversation; if not, he’ll force himself into it, as he has done in the past. There have also been calls for former Mexico star defender Rafael Marquez to be considered, although he seems to just be settling into his latest job as manager of Barcelona B.

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Herculez Gomez, Sebastian Salazar and Ale Moreno explain what led to Tata Martino and Mexico’s departure from the World Cup.

Of course, the final building blocks of this project that will need to be reassembled and analyzed by the FMF are the players themselves. While the argument could be made that key players in their early-to-mid 20s like Kevin Alvarez, Edson Alvarez, Luis Chavez, Cesar Montes and Alexis Vega could be at their peak by the time 2026 rolls around, there is no doubt that Mexico need an injection of youth.

In net, Carlos Acevedo should be slated to be a vital goalkeeping figure worthy of a return to El Tri’s setup. Looking at the defense, Emilio Lara, Israel Reyes and Julian Araujo are ready for more national team opportunities. Midfielders like Erick Sanchez and Marcelo Flores should also be in the mix as crucial playmakers, while in attack, there are obvious game-changers like Santiago Gimenez and Diego Lainez who would have no problems slotting into the starting XI.

The list goes on when looking at younger options emerging from Liga MX as well as eligible dual-nationals. Listing coaches who could possibly take charge and be part of a much-needed rebuild, while also highlighting potential changes within Mexico’s league structure, is an easy practice to take part in as well.

Looking ahead, it’s up to the FMF and leadership to pick up the mess that Martino left, sort out the options and names to consider, then put it all together in a winning combination. If not, expect more news conferences, possibly on the outskirts of another town, focusing on 2030, when 2026, like 2022, didn’t go as planned either.