Mexico was almost eliminated from World Cup contention before the United States gave El Tri a second chance with a comeback win over Panama. In order to qualify for next summer's tournament, Mexico must now get past New Zealand.
The inter-confederation playoff matchup starts with a clash at Estadio Azteca on Wednesday before a rematch in New Zealand next week. Getting off to a good start at home is paramount to El Tri's chances after a rocky CONCACAF qualifying cycle.
Ultimately, Mexico should emerge from the playoff with a berth in the World Cup, but it also shouldn't have needed to reach this stage to begin with. It must elevate its level of play in order to leave those prior frustrations in the past and secure a trip to Brazil.
Knowing that, let's examine the biggest key for each national team in the first leg.
Mexico: Build Chemistry After Shift in Philosophy
Manager Miguel Herrera was forced to make a tough decision ahead of the playoff. He either had to call up his most talented 23 players, causing a heavy travel schedule and limited practice time for those playing in Europe, or go with a domestic squad. He chose the latter
It's a decision that comes with plenty of risk. A Mexican squad without the likes of former stalwarts Javier Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Hector Moreno lacks the star power associated with El Tri at their peak.
Yet by going with a squad that only includes players based in Mexico, including 10 from Club America, the process of building chemistry should be easier. That's important, because it's always a major hurdle when players from clubs around the globe come together for one or two matches at a time.
As the roster is currently constructed, Mexico is going to lean heavily on Oribe Peralta. The in-form striker has scored in three straight matches and five of the past six for El Tri. In the only game he didn't score, the side got shut out.
His ability to get on the same page with the other forward, whether it be Aldo de Nigris and Raul Jimenez, as well as an inexperienced international midfield is essential. Getting that chemistry to develop quickly on the attack is crucial in the first leg.
New Zealand: Take Advantage of Mexico's Poor Home Form
In the past, heading into Estadio Azteca for a World Cup qualifier was an extremely daunting task. However, for whatever reason the mental advantage Mexico held quickly faded away during the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
Three of the five home matches during the stage ended in scoreless draws. Honduras even went into the once-feared venue and emerged with a victory. Those lackluster results should give New Zealand an instant boost of confidence heading into the opening leg.
The goal should be to play a tight defensive match with the hope of emerging with a draw. The All Whites' scoring chances should come from the counterattack, and if they happen to steal a win through that approach, all the better. Protecting the goal comes first, however.
They do have a veteran back line, led by Ivan Vicelich, Tony Lochhead and Ben Sigmund. Their goal at the outset is slowing down Peralta. If they can do that and force the other member of the attack to beat them, El Tri will likely grow frustrated, as has been the case so often at home recently.
Ultimately, New Zealand wants to return home for the second leg with a realistic chance to advance on aggregate. Playing strong defense and taking advantage of Mexico's home struggles is their best chance to make that happen.