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Mexico aims to improve in KO stage
It proved a fitful process, by and large. Every match improved incrementally upon the last, but the rather low starting point created in the galling opening day defeat to Panama and the modest standard set in the 3-1 victory over Martinique in the final group game left plenty of room for further growth during the knockout stages.
The quest for a third straight championship commences in earnest against Trinidad and Tobago (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET). Mexico enters its quarterfinal tie in Atlanta as the prohibitive favorite to book a place in the semifinals, but one triumph will not suffice in a tournament it always expects to win.
“The objective is to go for the title,” Mexico coach José Manuel de la Torre said in his native Spanish after the triumph over Martinique on Sunday. “It is our commitment to keep working to get to the final and to win the Gold Cup title. If it leads to more and more pressure, then that is the way it is. It's the way we work. It's what happens when you're part of the national team. We have to understand that. We have to keep working hard. It's part of our job.”
Complete application provides the baseline for this side, but it must supplement its toil with more quality in order to relieve some of the tension within the ranks. Mexico has produced one alluring half – the compelling opening stanza against Martinique, a side that approached the match expansively and paid a significant price when Cuba claimed the final quarterfinal berth after pulling into a tie on goal difference on Tuesday night – in three full matches. It flailed around for the remainder of its efforts and grasped for positive moments here and there to boost morale.
The influential performances of Marco Fabián and Luis Montes (an inspired introduction ahead of the 2-0 victory over Canada) offer ample reason to hope for more consistency during the knockout stages. Both players possess the quality and the trickery to spark Mexico – often marooned in possession without the sharpness to carve teams apart in the final third during the group stage – to life. And the prospects of Raúl Jiménez and Rafael Márquez Lugo (if he holds off Javier Orozco for his place in the starting XI) hinge on the supply offered by Fabián and Montes over the next few matches.
By relying on Fabián and Montes to create in advanced positions on either flank, de la Torre heaped significant pressure on his somewhat flimsy rearguard. The back four showed signs of buckling on several occasions during the group stage even with two holding players usually selected to provide further protection. The potential absence of Jorge Enríquez (right hamstring) for the quarterfinal tie complicates the matter further.
De la Torre and his players must strike the correct balance between endeavor and pragmatism in the forthcoming matches to pursue their primary purpose in the proper fashion.
“I don't think we feel obligated (to win the tournament),” de la Torre said. “We are committed to it. That's what we've said from the beginning: we are committed to this project. For you, it might be obligation. For me, I can tell you it is commitment. In that aspect, we have a commitment to our objectives. We work and work to get those objectives. Sometimes, we get them. Sometimes, we don't. It's a part of the process. I think the team keeps working really hard to meet those objectives.”
Work alone will not retain Gold Cup supremacy for another two years. It is well past time for this group – less talented than the full team, but still plenty capable of lifting the trophy – to live up to its potential and string together a trio of performances befitting its stature in the region.
“I think the team is working hard to get there,” de la Torre said. “I think we're going from less to more, which is better than going from more to less. Every time, we'll be facing better rivals and stronger rivals. We'll have to work harder to get those results.”
Unless those dividends manifest in better performances sooner rather than later, El Tri will turn its attention from the steady, if somewhat underwhelming, gains made during the group stage to an undesirable post-mortem about where this journey ultimately went off track.
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