Mexico interim head coach Luis Fernando Tena speaks to the press on September 9, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo: Mexsport)
By Michael Lewis
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Only 13 months ago, Luis Fernando Tena and his Mexican team were on top of the football world by becoming the first CONCACAF men's team to earn an Olympic gold medal in football.
On Tuesday, Tena faces yet another great challenge as interim coach of Mexico’s full team: try to turn things around and upend the United States in a crucial World Cup qualifier at Columbus Crew on Tuesday night.
Taking over for Jose Manuel de la Torre only hours after a 2-1 home defeat to Honduras, Tena has not had much time to organize El Tri. The Mexicans have never won in three qualifiers in this Midwestern city with the U.S. recording 2-0 victories in 2001, 2005 and 2009.
"It wasn't the ideal situation," he said. "I've got to deal with it."
Tena, an assistant under de la Torres, said that he intends to keep things simple. He doesn't plan to make many changes, given his short time as interim coach.
"You can't expect to make too many changes with a team that made some changes three days ago," he told a press conference at Columbus Crew Stadium on Monday night. "The team has its way of playing, its ideas, its fundamentals. You can't expect too many changes.”
He added that he has talked with the players "especially because I have only three days to prepare. I don't have too much time to prepare. I have to communicate with them to see how everybody is feeling, see what we have to fix."
There are things to fix on a team that has not lived up to expectations during the final qualifying round, despite going a perfect 6-0-0 in the previous round.
The Mexicans (1-5-1, 8 points) don't have much room for error against the Americans (4-1-2, 13 points), who are on the verge of booking a berth at next year's World Cup in Brazil.
"We know theoretically, you know visiting the U.S. is the hardest game," the 55-year-old continued. "The United States is a very solid team, very well built. They're physically strong. It has improved a lot in the way it handles the ball, so possession of the ball will be key."
If Mexico has any aspirations of reaching Brazil, Tena noted that El Tri must play aggressively.
"We have to go get a result with the three points, so we have to be aggressive," he said. "We know we have a great team, great players. We have to take advantage. We have to attack, which always has been our style of play."
But that has not translated into many goals for the Mexicans, who have suffered three scoreless draws at the Azteca in the CONCACAF Hexagonal.
During the press conference, Tena stressed several times that he was only thinking about Tuesday game and not future qualifiers. He added that he and staff, which worked under de la Torres, would worry about that come Wednesday.
"We can't think beyond Tuesday," he said. “What matters is the result. I think that we play good soccer and manage the ball well. We need points and they say wounds are all healed with points."
Tena admitted that he had been in contact with de la Torre, who urged the Olympic coach and his staff to remain with the team, at least through Tuesday's game.
"After the game, we're going to talk the [Mexican football] officials to see what they're thinking," he said. "Yes, I am interested to hear what Chepo (de la Torre) thinks, if we should continue as a coaching staff with the team. Right now, we're concentrating on the game tomorrow. We're not thinking about it."
As it should be, the focus is solely on beating the United States and reviving the campaign for Brazil 2014.