Right Place at the Right Time

It was all leading up to this for Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. As a player, Chepo had a more than decent career, lifted a few trophies, including one with Chivas, with whom he made his debut. He was good enough to have a glass of rioja and a torta de patata in Spain with Real Oviedo, if only for a year. He played a few games with Mexico, but never got the chance to play a World Cup. His time came when Mexico had been disqualified.

Once his career was over, he became an assistant, learning from a variety of coaches. He apprenticed under such stalwarts as Manuel Lapuente and Leo Beenhakker for eight years before he finally got his shot. With Chivas, no less.

In his first full season in 2006, he led Chivas to their first title in 9 years, which means he was directly involved in 2 of Chivas’ 3 only titles in a 40 year span. But even that wasn’t enough to keep his job under Jorge Vergara, Guadalajara’s mercurial owner, who fired Chepo 9 months later.

Chivas’ loss was Toluca’s gain. Chepo wasted no time in making the Red Devils champions, as they defeated Cruz Azul in penalties in the A08 season, his first as coach. He collected one more trophy at Toluca in the Bicentenario 2010, again on penalties over Santos. After the World Cup, he was the favorite to assume the role of National team coach. He got it, and went right to work.

Chepo did not stay in Guadalajara like Ricardo La Volpe, Cancun like Hugo Sanchez, or Miami like Javier Aguirre. He chose to set up office in Mexico’ National team center in Mexico City. De la Torre then did something a Tri coach hadn’t done in long time. He visited every team’s facilities. Some teams hadn’t been visited by the top dog in years, if ever. And, of course, he watched games in person on the weekends.

He traveled to Europe to visit with his expats. He did everything you would want your coach to do. You know – learn, explore, homework, coach. Sometimes that is not always the case in Mexico.

Leading up to the tournament, he was asked ad naseum if Mexico had the obligation to win the tournament. His response was always the same: “Mexico has the obligation to play well.” His press conferences were not like those of his predecessors. He was not defensive like La Volpe, arrogant like Hugo, clueless like Sven, or combative like Aguirre. The ones I attended were always full of pratfalls and gotcha questions. He never took the bait, never praised his players individually, or threw them under the bus, and was nothing but respectful toward his opponents, whoever they were. It was always about the team, and he kept whatever he told his team in the locker room.

In other words, he said a lot without saying anything, and all in 40 seconds or less. It was very apparent that he was fluent in advanced coach-speak. Mack Brown would be proud.

He also had an unbelievable amount of distractions in the Gold Cup to deal with. It started with an injured player sent home, then Zinha’s father died, the doping scandal, the reduced roster, and the last minute additions.

And throughout all that mess, Chepo kept a unflappable front and, in turn, united his team. They responded by scoring 22 goals, only allowed 4 and had 3 clean sheets. They were behind for a grand total of 88 minutes in their 6 games, only 15% of their time on the field. The coach was even open to modifying his rigid schemes as games dictated. And Mexico never lost their patience.

Despite his status as national team coach, Chepo will only serve as a consultant as Mexico kicks off their Copa America participation next week. Mexico will resume action, most likely in Europe, for the September slate of FIFA dates before getting ready for 2014 qualifiers.

Chepo probably wishes it was sooner.