When the United States lost to Jamaica last Wednesday in the Gold Cup semifinals, calls for Jurgen Klinsmann to be fired reverberated. Despite the lethargic and poor displays from the United States, jettisoning Klinsmann would have lead U.S. soccer president Sunil Gulati into an unnecessarily complicated period of deciding who would manage the team in the Confederations Cup playoff in October. That would have been followed by further questions on if that manager would be replaced after that game, regardless of whether they win or lose to the 2015 Gold Cup champion.
Thankfully, Gulati looked at the wider picture rather than going with a knee-jerk reaction. His rivals south of the border, however, seized on their opportunity to cut ties with a manager whose firing would've been controversial otherwise.
The Mexican Football Federation (FMF) decided Tuesday afternoon to fire Miguel Herrera after his alleged incident of punching a journalist at Philadelphia International Airport on Monday. That reported incident led to the emergence of a Univision video which shows a highly charged scene, but does not appear to show the punch Azteca TV reporter Christian Martinoli claimed Herrera threw. Whether Herrera did punch Martinoli or not, the FMF’s board of governors -- a group made up of owners of Liga MX clubs -- took their opportunity to fire the manager responsible for leading Mexico out of the catastrophe of almost missing a World Cup.
It’s a firing that, while it has solid legal grounding because of the assault accusation, makes less sense from a competitive angle. In fact, based on Mexico's competitive record, it almost seems as though the accusation is simply an excuse to fire someone they already wanted to get rid of.
Mexico just won the Gold Cup -- albeit thanks to two controversial knockout round wins -- and insured themselves of a Confederations Cup playoff match against the United States. Miguel Herrera was able to lead his side to the regional title despite Porto star Hector Herrera looking like a weary version of his dynamic self, and not having the services of all three of his star frontmen for stretches of the tournament.
Javier Hernandez suffered a broken collarbone before the tournament, Giovani Dos Santos suffered an injury before the knockout stages, and Carlos Vela being unavailable for the final are all factors against Mexico's success that should not be discounted. Having one or both of Hernandez and Dos Santos would certainly have facilitated breaking down 10-man Panama with greater ease in the semifinal. It’s also not Herrera’s fault that Vela missed a boatload of chances against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, a match Mexico would have won easy if the Real Sociedad star had his shooting boots on that night.
Despite that success, though, Herrera was a divisive figure. Many fans and several members of the FMF's board of governors chafed over the weaker squad Herrera selected to go to the Copa America last month, which Herrera justified as necessary to rest Mexico's stars for the more important Gold Cup later in the summer. That decision coupled with his always-fiery personality lead him to feud with several members of the media as well, including Christian Martinoli, the man he allegedly attacked.
What more did Liga MX owners want from Miguel Herrera? Did they want him to win valueless friendlies that no one in Mexico would remember? Did they really expect him to lead a B-squad to a deep run in Copa America against full strength teams from CONMEBOL? Did they expect him to play all of Mexico's top-shelf stars with so little time to rest between the Copa America and Gold Cup? And did they really expect, without Hernandez at all and without Giovani Dos Santos at full strength, that they would have an easy time winning against Costa Rica and Panama?
Clearly with this seemingly rash decision, Herrera was finished as Mexico’s coach in their minds before the Gold Cup’s latter stages. They just needed the ideal moment in their eyes to do it, and they were given it on a platter with Herrera’s alleged moment with Martinoli.
It’d be understandable if they waited to part ways with Herrera if Mexico failed to win the Confederations Cup playoff against the United States on October 9th. But by giving him the pink slip now, the FMF could potentially repeat their embarrassing episode in 2013, when Herrera became the fourth manager within a one month span for Mexico. What happens to the Confederations Cup playoff manager, assuming he is just hired on an interim basis, if they lose to the United States? Will that man get sacked as well, or be guaranteed the job into the start of World Cup qualifying for 2018 regardless of the result? This confounding choice somehow makes Klinsmann’s current, tenuous situation seem comfortable in comparison.
The FMF has to understand that a different manager isn’t the one thing Mexico needs in order to join the true elite of the world and slap aside their regional rivals. Equally necessary are players living up to expectations in this "golden generation", something Herrera was seemingly getting with how the team performed at the 2014 World Cup. He slowly got Vela back into the program after months of bad blood between the 26-year-old and the federation, and Herrera got Andres Guardado back to his best form with the national team in years, with Guardado earning a Gold Cup MVP trophy that no one could question.
Now Mexico are again without a long term manager and displaying volatility unbecoming of a nation that wants to be among the best. If they continue in this path, they will repeat the frustrating feelings of underachievement and annoyance they feel today. And no matter the United States’ own issues, it will look like paradise compared to the reality show drama of El Tri.