Mexico needed a draw against Costa Rica to guarantee itself a spot in the playoff with New Zealand. Instead, El Tri put together another lackluster performance and were saved only because the United States stormed back to defeat Panama.
After thanking its fierce rivals for another chance to qualify for the World Cup, Mexico must focus on finding a way to elevate its level of play. Quite simply, the team hasn't been good enough to deserve a trip to Brazil since play in the CONCACAF Hex began.
Tuesday night's match was a perfect example of El Tri's struggles. Even though they were able to control possession, Costa Rica was the side that created more dangerous scoring chances and converted two of them in part due to poor defending from Mexico.
Aside from the suddenly resurgent Oribe Peralta, who's been in great form and scored the team's only goal in the latest loss, the attack has been listless. An area of the squad that should have been an advantage against its regional foes turned into a serious problem.
The main reason for those issues was the lack of involvement by Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos.
Both Hernandez and dos Santos are at the point in their career where they should be carrying the Mexican squad. They possess no shortage of talent and should be putting consistent pressure on back lines, regardless of the opponent's ability level.
Yet, the impact of Hernandez receiving sporadic playing time at Manchester United might finally be showing through. "Chicharito" squandered his few chances against Costa Rica and was taken off for Raul Jimenez, who saved the day against Panama last week, at the hour mark.
Dos Santos continued a trend of virtually invisible play for the national team. He hasn't scored a goal for Mexico since June of last year. El Tri brought him on with about 25 minutes left hoping he would provide a spark, but it didn't happen.
Turning things around before the playoff with New Zealand begins with those two stars. Mexico scored just seven goals in 10 Hex matches. It was lucky the defense held up, at least until the group finale, or it would already be eliminated.
Peralta has stepped up on the attack, which will help, but Mexico won't reach its peak unless Hernandez and dos Santos are both making their presence felt.
Which nation will win the intercontinental playoff?
It's the only way to make steady play in the midfield from Javier Aquino, Jesus Zavala and Co. pay off. And it's also the only way to take some pressure off a back line that's held up well given the lack of attacking support.
If Mexico plays up to its potential, it should beat New Zealand, which wasn't seriously challenged during OFC qualifying. That said, if El Tri had played at a higher level during the Hex, they wouldn't have needed a playoff as a last-ditch effort to qualify for the World Cup.
Rafael Marquez and his fellow veterans must ensure they squad is on the same page next month. Mexico was given a second chance and must seize it but will only do so if it plays much better than it did against Costa Rica and throughout much of the Hex.
All of that poor play will be forgotten if Mexico can take care of business against New Zealand. But El Tri have plenty of work to do in order to make that happen.