TOLUCA, Mexico -- Requiring a late goal from Uriel Antuna to overcome a stubborn Bermuda side (ranked 168 in the world by FIFA) 2-1 wasn't exactly the perfect way for Mexico to close out 2019 on Tuesday.
The expected thrashing on a cold evening in Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez didn't come, although much credit must be given to Bermuda for fighting and eventually forcing manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino to throw on Raul Jimenez, Rodolfo Pizarro and Roberto Alvarado off the bench in search of a winner. Martino admitted afterwards that he hadn't planned to use the trio.
"I don't want to make excuses, but [Luis] Romo was making his debut, [Sebastian] Cordova, [Erick] Aguirre, [Jose] Macias all played and Bermuda fielded its first team. We had a team with Under-23s," said Martino in the news conference after.
The average age of Mexico's starting XI was 23.5 years old and even though this was a lethargic and anti-climatic end to 2019, the year has been positive for Mexico. Here's a few reasons why.
El Tri was dismal in the international break back in November 2018, falling to Argentina twice and provoking goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa to come out and talk openly about the "lack of direction" in the national team.
But Ochoa has changed his tune on the back of what he's seen in the year since Martino was announced last January.
"The change has been positive," said Ochoa after last Friday's 3-0 win over Panama. "It's been very good having 'Tata' at the helm, he's ingrained a footballing style into the team, there's been tranquility and continuity ... we're on the right path."
Giving young players a chance
Martino, 57, believes the biggest accomplishment this year has been the integration of younger players into the squad. The ball has started rolling on a generational change whose success or failure will likely define Martino's stint in charge.
The Argentine needs younger players to start seriously competing with the established generation of players that reached the Round of 16 stage of the 2018 World Cup and the tentative signs are good. A young batch of players are emerging and taking onboard Martino's style and requirements. And although it is early in the process to prepare for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the sense that the more experienced Europe-based players are no longer all guaranteed spots in the team -- including Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez -- has created competition.
"One of the things I liked about this year was that the team maintained it's playing style even in knockout games," said Martino. "Also this year, I'd highlight the wide range of young players that we've seen and that have done well."
Monterrey's Carlos Rodriguez, Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul) and Uriel Antuna (LA Galaxy) all featured in 13 games for Mexico in 2019, more than any other player. To suggest that those three youngsters would be playing so much for the full national team this year would have seemed ridiculous back in January.
One young player that has really stood out is Edson Alvarez. The former Club America midfielder played at Russia 2018 and isn't exactly a newcomer, but he's only 22 and this year has seen him go from a promising youngster to one of the first names on Mexico's teamsheet in the holding midfield role. Alvarez's move to last season's Champions League semifinalists Ajax this summer has boosted his confidence and he should captain his country one day.
Bringing success on the pitch
While the emergence of younger talents may have been Martino's biggest accomplishment, winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup bought some relief from a press inquiry. The path to victory culminated in a 1-0 victory over the United States, but it wasn't always easy and there were struggles in overcoming Haiti in the semifinal.
The Nations League has been smooth with El Tri beating Bermuda and Panama twice to sail through Group B and land a semifinal with Costa Rica.
The real blip on the year was the 4-0 loss to Argentina in September. Mexico had looked good in defeating South American sides Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela and Chile in the first half of 2019, but the Argentina performance by a strong-looking Mexico XI left doubts that linger.
"Under no circumstances could you say any of my work is brilliant," said Martino. "I could be a little more expressive if we'd have added in the middle of all these [CONCACAF Nations League] games some top level matches to know if the Argentina result was the reality that we need to improve, or if it was just a bad night with errors."
Martino will have to wait for the March friendlies to see the team next and he is very keen to play quality opposition. Beyond that, the future looks bright.
Mexico finished second at the Under-17s World Cup -- El Tri reached its third final in the last four editions -- and the U23 group preparing for the Olympics right now is particularly competitive.
Things can flip relatively quickly in CONCACAF and Martino will have his difficult moments moving forward, but this year has been an authoritative introduction to life as Mexico coach for the Argentine and El Tri looks well placed for the foreseeable future.