NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — When Mexico arrived at the World Cup last month, the big question was how far would the team go. Now that the team has left — once again earlier than expected — the question becomes how long will its coach be around?
Juan Carlos Osorio is the fifth-winningest manager in Mexican history but he turned down a contract extension six months ago and says he has already spoken to a number of suitors about a new job. The U.S. is still looking for a permanent replacement for Bruce Arena, who resigned last October, and Osorio is among those who have expressed an interest.
Osorio would be a perfect fit. He's bilingual, has spent much of his adult life split between the U.S. and Latin America, and he understands MLS, having coached two teams there. He's studious, innovative, believes in giving young players a chance and enjoys teaching as much as he likes the X's and O's.
"There are managers that can manage the locker room. There are other managers or other head coaches that can direct a team on game days," Osorio said last spring. "I can do all that. (But) the thing that I enjoy the most is training, training players to become better on a daily basis."
Asked in the spring if the U.S. job interested him, Osorio didn't hesitate.
"Very much so," he said. "There are no secrets. They have good talent in the U.S."
In recent years, some of it has been fleeing to Mexico, though, with Osorio talking teenager Jonathan Gonzalez into declaring for Mexico and Galaxy academy phenom Efrain Alvarez joining Mexico's U-17s. Osorio seems uniquely qualified to stop that exodus given his track record of developing young talent.
He helped Hirving Lozano mature from young talent to breakout star at 22. He gave 20-year-old defender Edson Alvarez his first national team cap and played him in all four World Cup games. And he gave midfielder Erick Gutierrez and defender Jesus Gallardo their starts with the national team.
So, if he decides to move on after nearly three years, he'll leave the Mexican team in far better shape than when he found it. But he did hit some bumps along the way.
After going unbeaten in his first 10 games with Mexico, Osorio was blitzed by Chile 7-0 in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario, El Tri's most one-sided loss ever. His teams washed out in the semifinals of the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup. Then on Monday, a team that came to Russia touted as the best in Mexican history proved it was no better than the last six World Cup teams when it was eliminated by Brazil in the knockout round.
Mexico is one of only two countries to make the final 16 of the last seven World Cups — but it's the only one that hasn't won a game once it got there. In Russia, he outcoached Germany's Joachim Low in the opener when Mexico beat the reigning world champions but he had no answer for Sweden's defensive tactics in the group-play final, an embarrassing 3-0 loss. Against Brazil, his team managed just one shot on goal.
However, if that proves to be Osorio's last game with Mexico — and the country's soccer federation will likely ask him to stay — it won't be because of the results. The Mexican media and the team's impossible-to-please fans have been critical of the coach from the start, launching a social-media campaign with the hashtag #FueraOsorio — fire Osorio — just months after he was hired.
"It will always be like that," said Osorio, the 12th Mexican manager in the last 12 years. "Right now for me, but in the future for any other manager because that's just the way the media is in Mexico."
The fact the coach is Colombian, not Mexican, hasn't helped.
But Osorio's honesty and openness — not to mention his success — has made him immensely popular with his players, who closed ranks around their coach and used every interview opportunity to bash his critics and praise their coach.
"We know what he's been through, from the inside," captain Andres Guardado said in Spanish. "We know how hard he has worked. He deserves (success)."
Added goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa: "We believe in him. We know what we are capable of and he convinces us."
Carlos Cordeiro, the new president of U.S. Soccer, and Earnie Stewart, recently hired as general manager for the national team, are in no rush to choose a new coach. Last week, they extended the contracts of interim coach Dave Sarachan and his top assistants through the end of the year, a sign they intend to take their time.
Osorio seems in no rush, either.
"This is the most irrelevant thing right now," he said Monday, about 30 minutes after the loss to Brazil. "We just lost a very important match. It's very painful so we will wait and see what happens over the next few days."
Yet, short a major raise or other concession, it seems obvious that Osorio is leaving. The only question now is how long will Mexico's coach stay?