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By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Coach Ricki Herbert ended his association with the New Zealand soccer team after Wednesday's 4-2 loss to Mexico in their intercontinental playoff snuffed out their faint World Cup dreams.
Oribe Peralta scored a first half hat-trick for the CONCACAF heavyweights, who won the two-legged tie 9-3 on aggregate after they had all but sealed qualification with a 5-1 victory at the Azteca Stadium last week.
The 52-year-old Herbert had already indicated he would leave at the end of the campaign, though he said while his contract officially ends at the conclusion of the World Cup next year he would look to leave earlier than that.
"I'm going to wake up in the morning thinking the game is in a very healthy position," Herbert told reporters after the match at Wellington Regional Stadium.
"I go out with my head high and very, very proud."
Herbert had been appointed to the role in 2005 and rebuilt the side, ultimately culminating in the team qualifying for their second World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.
The former central defender, however, also underestimated the improvement of the Pacific islands sides, which produced an embarrassing failure to qualify for this year's Confederations Cup when Tahiti claimed the Oceania Nations Cup title.
Herbert had also been criticized by some local pundits for being too defensive, though on Wednesday he embraced an all-out attacking approach in an effort to overturn the Azteca deficit.
What was more encouraging, however, was the age of some of the players he entrusted to do the job that gave New Zealand fans some hope of the future.
Herbert rejigged his defense with 18-year-old Bill Tuiloma starting at left back for just his second cap, while 20-year-old Storm Roux made his debut at right back.
The 20-year-old Louis Fenton also impressed on debut when he replaced the injured Tuiloma in the second half and with Roux switching to his preferred left side he managed to play a lot better than in the first half when Mexico attacked the wide channels outside him and in between centre back Andrew Durante.
Kosta Barbarouses (23) and Marco Rojas (22) and two 26-year-olds in Chris James and Michael McGlinchey linked together well and also provided attacking thrust from the midfield.
Injured captain Winston Reid is 25 and with 23-year-old stand-in captain Tommy Smith should provide an incoming coach with a solid central defensive pairing while striker Chris Wood turns 22 next month.
"The very inexperienced team that started and was introduced off the bench showed some wonderful potential," Herbert added.
"I look forward to 2018 and buying a ticket to watch a pretty talented team."
Herbert also urged New Zealand Football to organize more matches against higher-quality opposition and continue to lobby for the Oceania winner to join Asia's final qualifying group or allow New Zealand to follow Australia into the Asian region.
"If you went into a group with 10 meaningful international fixtures that would all be incredibly testing ... I think New Zealand needs these challenges," he said.
"It's opposition like that you want these young players playing against, not club sides.
"I always wanted to pit the team against top sides and this young group needs this right now.
"I think with that sort of preparation and investment, why couldn't they go to Russia in 2018?"
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)