SPORTS

Rio 2016: Mexico's men's soccer squad has set the bar, and expectations, high

Mexico's Erick Gutierrez, 2nd left, celebrates his goal with teammates Mexico's Oribe Peralta, left, and Mexico's Michael Perez during a group C match of the men's Olympic football tournament between Mexico and Fiji at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Arisson Marinho)

Mexico's Erick Gutierrez, 2nd left, celebrates his goal with teammates Mexico's Oribe Peralta, left, and Mexico's Michael Perez during a group C match of the men's Olympic football tournament between Mexico and Fiji at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Arisson Marinho)  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistribu)

For many teams, just reaching the Summer Olympics is an amazing accomplishment in itself.

Then there's the Mexico men's Olympic squad, which has set the bar pretty high for itself and its players at the Rio Games.

After all, El Tri became the first CONCACAF men's team to bring home the gold - from London in 2012.

That's a pretty tough act to follow, but Mexico head coach Raul Gutiérrez is optimistic his team can go deep into this tournament.

“Every team is difficult. We are ready to defend our gold medal. We have the quality and we are working hard,” Gutiérrez told rio2016.com, the official website of the Olympic Games. “I believe that the current generation of footballers has grown with their successes. We will continue with the same passion as before.”

Considered essentially an Under-23 men's competition, the Olympic soccer tournament brings a different set of challenges and rules than that of the World Cup.

Due to an agreement between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, teams must use U-23 players but can include three overage players if they so choose. So, it is rare for players in the modern era to play in consecutive Olympics unless they were very young or an overage player.

Another wrinkle: Most of the matches are played outside of the host city due to stadium constraints, although the final is set for Rio.

Striker Oribe Peralta, 32, is Mexico’s most revered player for the most obvious reasons. He struck four times in London, including twice in the 2-1 gold-medal win over Brazil. He also scored 29 seconds into that final, the quickest goal in history in any FIFA competition.

At the international level, 32 is considered bordering on ancient for a striker, but Mexican soccer officials felt Peralta's experience - Olympic and overall - and his goal-scoring pace (he averages almost a goal every other match for two-time defending CONCACAF Champions League winner, Club America) would be a perfect fit.

If there were any concerns about his scoring form, Peralta put them to rest, connecting for all the goals in Club America's 3-1 win over Toluca July 24.

Peralta isn't the oldest player on the team. Toluca goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, at 33, is, but his experience should prove valuable in sticky situations. The other overage player is Tigres left back Jorge Torres Nilo, 28, who should help stabilize the backline.

Winger Hirving Lozano, a Manchester United target, is one of five Pachuca players that dominate the 18-man roster. Lozano played in four games at Copa America Centenario, starting twice. Central midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who has made six appearances with the full Mexican side, is a Pachuca teammate.

Forward Erick "Cubo" Torres is the lone non-Liga MX player on the squad, performing for the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer. He has tallied six times in 10 games with the U-23’s and could be a valuable partner with Peralta.

El Tri appears to be a solid side. How solid it is could be determined in the first round.

The Mexicans endured a disappoint opening Group C result against Germany Thursday, twice losing one-goal leads before settling for a 2-2 draw. Rodolfo Pizarro and Peralta scored in that encounter in Salvador.

They got a boost after routing newcomers and minnows Fiji 5-1 on Sunday. They will face South Korea in Brasilia on Wednesday. The quarterfinals are Aug. 13, the semifinals Aug. 17 and the final at Maracana Stadium Aug. 20.

A word of caution: don't count out South Korea, which earned a bronze medal in 2012. Midfielder Son Heung-min, 24, has proven to be dangerous on the wing. His upside is huge as the most expensive Asian player ever after his 2015 transfer from Bayer to Tottenham Hotspur for $34 million.

If the reigning gold medalists can grab the brass ring - err, the gold medal - they will enter an exclusive club. Securing back-to-back gold medals has been accomplished four times - by England (1908, 1912), Uruguay (1924, 1928), Hungary (1964, 1968) and Argentina (2004, 2008).

For Mexico to join those storied sides, a few things have to fall into line, perhaps against the likes of Argentina and host Brazil in the knockout round.

Last week the Mexicans played the Argentinians to a scoreless draw in Puebla. Whether that result bodes well for the knockout round, it remains to be seen (actually that game could be considered a loss for Argentina as the team complained that cash and electronics were stolen from their hotel during the game, which could bring up an intriguing revenge factor).

Incredible as it may sound, the Brazilians have never won an Olympic gold medal to put next to their five World Cup championships. They want to be standing in the middle of the winner's podium at Maracana so badly on Aug. 20 that they held out Barcelona star Neymar from Copa America.

Just imagine the agita that would consume the host country if the Mexicans won a second soccer gold medal with the Brazilians falling short yet again.

And just imagine what the celebrations in Mexico would be like if the team makes more history one more time.