Guillermo Ochoa came up with the big save on the third penalty kick, giving El Tri a victory over Costa Rica on Thursday night and setting up a rematch in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with its archrival, the United States. Mexico won 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.
After Carlos Vela buried the fifth and final penalty into the corner of the net to seal the victory, he sprinted over and tackled Ochoa as the rest of their teammates rushed forward to join the dogpile.
This will be El Tri’s sixth trip to the Gold Cup final, its only loss coming two years ago at the hands of the Americans. The final is Sunday at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
“We’re very happy as a team. This was a struggle against a very good team, but now we are through to the final,” Ochoa said.
Mexico could have been through a lot earlier, blowing several chances to put the game away in the second half and in the first period of extra time. But when it counted most, Ochoa and his teammates came up big, making each of their penalties and getting that one critical save.
Froylan Ledezma, whose goal in the 93rd minute sent this game into extra time, took Costa Rica’s third penalty kick. But as he connected, Ochoa dived to his left and thrust out his hands, smacking the ball away. Costa Rica would make its next penalty, but it wouldn’t matter.
Sunday’s final is sure to be highly charged, as all games between the United States and Mexico are. That the two have a World Cup qualifier Aug. 12 at Azteca – where the Americans have never one – only adds to the drama.
“We’re not focusing on that right now, we’re focusing on our next match,” Ochoa said. “What’s important is the match coming now, and we need to play well against them before we can start looking forward to (Aug. 12).”
At least Mexico will have its coach back. Javier Aguirre’s three-game suspension for his altercation with Panama’s Ricardo Phillips during group play ended with Thursday night’s game.
Though Mexico had few of its regular starters – like the United States in the first semifinal – any victory these days is big. El Tri has had more drama than a telenovela, with a revolving door of coaches, losses on the field and a surprisingly slow start to World Cup qualifying. Mexico is fourth in the CONCACAF region right now, with only the top three teams getting automatic spots in South Africa next year.
“This win tonight in this tournament is going to energize us,” Aguirre said through a translator.
The game was wide open early, with both teams able to make deep runs and get into the area with little trouble. But Mexico seemed to have the edge in the second half, and had several chances to get on the board.
Ticos captain Freddy Fernandez was whistled for a handball in the 56th minute after a cross by Jose Antonio Castro smacked his upper arm. Miguel Sabah, whose four goals lead the Gold Cup, took the penalty kick but the ball rolled right to Costa Rica goalkeeper Keilor Navas. Navas dived on it, smothering it and drawing groans from the Mexico fans who made up much of the crowd of 55,173 at Soldier Field.
In the 82nd minute, Fernandez tripped Carlos Vela and was given a yellow card. Castro took the kick from about 25 yards, but instead of directing it toward the goal, he kicked it to the side and it was immediately cleared by a Ticos defender.
Mexico finally broke through in the 88th minute when Guillermo Franco scored from the edge of the 6-yard box. Navas swatted at the ball, but it bounced backward and over the goal line. The stadium erupted – someone even threw a smoking flare on the field – and Franco pulled his jersey out with pride.
But the celebration was short-lived. Three minutes into stoppage time and seconds from the final whistle, Alvaro Saborio headed the ball forward and Ledezma beat Juan Carlos Valenzuela for it. Ochoa had no chance at the laser from 10 yards, taking the game into extra time.
And just as it did in the second half, Mexico couldn’t capitalize on several opportunities.
In the sixth minute of the first overtime, El Tri got a free kick thanks to a foul by Christian Oviedo and Giovani Dos Santos’ delivered it right into the scrum in front of the goal before Navas punched it clear.
A minute later, Dos Santos made a beautiful run, finishing with a perfect cross to Vela at the far post. But Vela muffed the shot, banging it off a couple of Costa Rican defenders.
“These were two teams playing their best to reach the final, and we each had many chances to score more goals,” Aguirre said. “The game could have ended without going to penalties, and we will need to take advantage (of those chances) in the final.”