Nine months is a long time in international football. Just ask Mexico.
Earlier this year, Mexico was not only unquestionably the best team in CONCACAF, they were the region's best hope for a World Cup finalist in decades. Their performance in the 2011 Gold Cup was as dominating as the tournament had ever seen and for much of the following year, they looked just as good. Anchored by a young, talented core that was excelling at some of Europe's best clubs, Mexico was a dominant team that only figured to get better.
Of course, that all fell apart in the Hex.
Mexico finished fourth in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, and they only did that well because of some help from the United States. Had it not been for Graham Zusi and the Americans' late comeback against Panama, the Canaleros would have had a crack at a trip to Brazil, while El Tri would have been fifth place and out of the World Cup. At that point, it wasn't even a surprise that Mexico had fallen apart and been dependent on the U.S. That's how horrific their year had been.
Their once fearsome attack had gone silent, totaling just seven goals in 10 Hex matches. Estadio Azteca became a feeding ground for visitors, who picked up points in four of five matches at the once-imposing concrete goliath. Before they had even played their playoff against New Zealand for a spot in Brazil, they had already gone through four coaches since the start of qualifying. If Mexico's team and players were a mess, it was matched by management, and the country's people could only watch in horror as their "Golden Generation" crumbled into pieces.
By any measure, 2013 was an unmitigated disaster for Mexico. While they may have rescued their campaign with a dominating 180 minutes against New Zealand, it couldn't erase how bad the year had been. Just a month earlier, they were hailing "San Zusi" for saving their World Cup lives.
And yet, Mexico may very well be primed to make good on the promise they showed from 2011 until March of this year. El Tri just needed to hit the reset button. With new leadership and months to prepare without the fear of impending qualification disaster, that's exactly what they've done.
The talent that drove Mexico to the Gold Cup in 2011 and made them arguably the best team CONCACAF has ever had in 2012 is still there. In fact, it may be better than ever before.
Of the Mexican core, only Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Andres Guardado are in worse form than they were at the beginning of the year, and both are still good players who have been playing better of late. Giovani dos Santos has found a stable club in Villarreal, Guillermo Ochoa is sparkling for Ajaccio and Hector Moreno has been as excellent as always.
All the while, Oribe Peralta has 11 goals in his last seven starts for Mexico, Hugo Ayala is fit again and Raul Jimenez is now a true threat up top, not just a promising young player. The revival of Rafa Marquez and emergence of Miguel Layun, Juan Carlos Vanezuela and Javier Aquino are also boosts, while Juan Carlos Medina, Luis Montes and Carlos Pena give El Tri options in a central midfield that has been problematic since the fall of 2011.
Talent-wise, especially when it comes to their depth, Mexico has never been better.
Mexico's roster could get even stronger with the introduction of Carlos Vela, too. The most in-form, and arguably most dangerous player available to them, Vela has turned away call-ups to El Tri for the better part of two years, but he may be willing to reconsider ahead of the World Cup. As if the team needed reinforcements, Vela could provide them with not just another player, but one better than El Tri have had in years.
With that amount of talent, even without Vela -- and certainly with him -- the only question is on the touchline, where Miguel Herrera's inexperience at the international level certainly raises eyebrows. However, his recent success at the club and country level should assuage most of those fears. His Club America team won the 2013 Clausura and may repeat in the Apertura later this month, while he was the man who guided El Tri in their domination against New Zealand. After the constant tinkering of Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, Herrera's commitment to his system -- one that plays to Mexico's player pool full of wingbacks who can't play in a back four and smaller, but technically excellent centerbacks -- is a welcome change for Mexico.
Nobody would argue that 2013 wasn't an embarrassment for Mexico, but it wasn't a catastrophe. They still qualified for the World Cup and there is no difference between being first place in the Hex and needing to qualify through a playoff anymore. The ticket to Brazil looks the same and the path to the final is no different.
Right now, Mexico is right where they imagined they would be nine months ago: awaiting the World Cup draw and plotting their road map to shocking the world. Only they're doing it with superior talent, depth and a manager who gives them much needed stability. There's reason to be optimistic about El Tri, just like there was before their 2013 mess.
Six months from now, Mexico could be making a run at the World Cup. They could win their group. They could advance to the quarterfinals. They could play in the semifinals. It seemed possible nine months ago, and they've already proven that nine months is an eternity in international football. Come June, they can prove that six months is an eternity as well.