CARSON -- The Ghost of Olympic Qualifiers Past haunts Mexico, so to speak, only when the media is around. And so it was Thursday, when Luis Fernando Tena, head coach of El Tri's under-23 national team, was greeted by cameras and tape recorders in a room deep in the bowels of Home Depot Center.
Mexico has failed to qualify for two of the past three Olympic Games' men's soccer tournaments, shockingly so just four years ago, and so the pressure has been amped considerably for this CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
Tena, whose team opens Group B play in the nightcap of a doubleheader Friday night at HDC, tries not to take notice.
“This 'ghost' arrives only when you ask about it,” Tena said in response to a question during a 15-minute news conference. “We don't pay a lot of attention to it. We're aware of history, of what happened four years ago, but a lot has changed. Four years is a long time in soccer. We want to focus on now and what this tournament is.”
This tournament, which kicked off Thursday night in Nashville, will determine the region's two entrants for men's soccer at this summer's London Games. Mexico, along with the U.S., is expected to snag one of the berths, and the roster Tena and full national team coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre has put together appears can't-miss.
All but one of 20 El Tri players is in the Mexican Primera Division -- CONCACAF's best league, hands down -- and most of them play key roles for big clubs. More than half have played for the national team. There are a few big stars (Guadalajara's Marco Fabian de la Mora is the name to remember) and major up-and-comers (Guadalajara's Erick Torres has drawn “Chicharito” comparisons).
And Mexican soccer, riding a golden generation that just might contend for a World Cup title in a couple of years -- no, really -- has unprecedented confidence.
It might not be enough. Tena, whose coaching career has included stints in charge at America, Cruz Azul, Morelia and Santos Laguna, already has tipped Honduras to win the group, a little psychology at play, perhaps, but a popular pick. The Catrachos have played in two of the last three Olympics, joining the U.S. at the 2000 Games in Sydney and four years ago in Beijing.
Panama, which faces Honduras in Friday's 6 p.m. opener, has four players from its semifinal team at last year's Gold Cup, CONCACAF's nation's championship. Trinidad & Tobago, the Caribbean's top team, faces Mexico at 8:30.
Mexico failed to reach the CONCACAF semifinals four years ago after tying Canada and losing to Guatemala in group play at Home Depot Center. The results cost Hugo Sanchez, the country's greatest soccer figure, his position as national team coach.
Another lapse won't be forgiven. Mexico has been to nine Olympics in men's soccer and advanced from the first stage just three times. El Tri's best showing was in Mexico City in 1968, when they lost to Bulgaria in the semifinals and Japan in the bronze-medal game.
Winning a medal, whatever color, is the goal. No medals if they can't qualify.
“We're another generation now, and we are clear as to what we are facing ...,” said Marco Fabian, who figures to start just behind Atlante forward Jeronimo Amione in a 4-4-1-1 formation. “We are all clear that the objective is to go to London, but we before thinking that we can or should win over there, we need to take care of the Olympic qualifying tournament, [and] that won't be easy.”
Mexico, he added, “should win due to the talent that we have in the team.”
Tena doesn't disagree.
“We know we have a lot of players with personality and character,” he said in Spanish. “We looked for those qualities when we chose the roster, for players who have experience playing in pressure situations … very conscientious, very intelligent players. They understand what it takes to be here, in a tournament like this. They understand what it means to wear the national jersey. They know the importance of the Olympics.”