El Tri's Journey Begins

For Mexico, the 2010 World Cup is Priority No. 1


U.S. national-team coach Bob Bradley has to be a little envious. While most nations will kick off their World Cup training camps in mid-May, Mexico manager Javier Aguirre will gather his team beginning April 12. That’s a one-month head start.

Last year, the Mexican Federation (FMF) worked with the owners of the Mexican first-division clubs to outline a plan that prioritizes the Mexican national team’s 2010 World Cup preparations. The goal was simple: to ensure the most successful World Cup in the nation’s history (Mexico reached the quarters as hosts in 1970 and 1986).

To that end, an unprecedented agreement was reached with the clubs to voluntarily release domestic players more than a month before FIFA requires.

On Tuesday, Aguirre issued a list of 17 players, who will play their final club matches this weekend before camp. Their teams will do without most of them for the last four matchdays of the regular season, the Mexican liguilla(playoffs), the Copa Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League.

This sacrifice is sure to carry economic compensation from the federation for the clubs who contribute players. However, the real motivation of all parties involved is a realization that a landmark performance at the World Cup would benefit all of Mexican professional soccer. In fact, a total of 12 World Cup warm-up matches have been scheduled by the FMF, most staged in the U.S.

Come July, this grand plan might have been all for nought. In a difficult World Cup group featuring France, Uruguay and hosts South Africa, it very well might be three-and-out for Mexico. But the ambition and vision of the Mexicans is laudable. The focus and advance planning is impressive. The unified front from club owners to federation officials is downright shocking.

Fans in general can find little fault in focusing all of a country’s soccer resources to put Mexico’s name among the very elite at the World Cup -- even if that means depriving their club teams of their star players. Country before club is the accepted maxim in world soccer.

Should it work out for Mexico, although many are skeptical, it could make for a model that MLS, the U.S. Soccer Federation and other CONCACAF qualifiers can look at for future tournaments.

But for all this work and planning, Mexico is still behind the ball ahead of the World Cup inaugural match on June 11 against South Africa. That’s because the hosts Bafana Bafana are outdoing even Mexico on preparations. Led by former MetroStars coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa will be wrapping up a month-long camp in Brazil with two more to follow before the tournament kicks off.

It’s the mighty Herculez:  American Herculez Gomez scored yet again on Sunday for his club team, Puebla. It’s his seventh goal in nine games. But last weekend’s strike wasn’t just any old goal. It was the game-winner and it came against Club América.

“The players called it the goal of a million-and-a-half pesos because that was one of the bonuses they offered us for beating América,” Gomez told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “Players are going to take home a nice chunk of change because of that game.”

His scoring rate of one goal every 79 minutes is the best in Mexican soccer. But Gomez is still not a starter for Puebla. He came off the bench on Sunday, too.

“My coach likes to keep me hungry,” Gomez said. “I wouldn’t call them mind games, but he likes to do things to get me going. I’ve been fortunate enough to get on the field and I’m hoping that soon enough he’ll give me more of an opportunity.”

Only In Mexico: Gomez scored his goal on Sunday with the help of América goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who whiffed on the wicked but stoppable free kick. That makes two major blunders in a span of 11 days for the Mexican national-team starter, including a similar gaffe against North Korea in a friendly on March 17.

One former Mexican World Cup goalkeeper said Ochoa’s fame is what has impacted his performance. In Tuesday’s edition of Mexican daily Record, Ochoa’s own dad says that should his son commit another error, a psychologist could be in order. With the World Cup only two months away, the pressure on Ochoa will only grow.

Match of the Week: While MLS experiences its SuperClasico between the Galaxy and Chivas USA on Thursday, the biggest match of them all in Mexico comes this Sunday night. League-leading Chivas de Guadalajara hosts Club América (Telemundo, 9 p.m. ET) with a chance to put a serious dent in their rivals’ liguilla quest.

Chivas’ five Mexican national-team players will be leaving the club for World Cup training camp following the game. They will not want to miss the opportunity to leave the home fans with a parting gift and bury their rivals, who will be without their best defender, Aquivaldo Mosquera, due to suspension.