Mexico advance to Gold Cup final amid controversial calls vs. Panama
Those essentials are accurate and reflected the way Wednesday night ended for posterity, but they barely scratch the surface of the farce that unfolded inside the Georgia Dome.
It is a night that will live in infamy, even when placed in the context of the spurious penalty award to send Mexico through against Costa Rica on Sunday. Both teams engaged in dastardly behavior with petulance and time-wasting masking any genuine attempts to play football, while the performance of the refereeing crew plunged the night into utter chaos.
Referee Mark Geiger reduced Panama to 10 men in the first half after Luis Tejada flung his arm back and Mexico’s Francisco Rodriguez tumbled to the ground to sell it. Geiger then awarded an 89th-minute penalty when Torres fell on the ball after an attempted clearance to plunge the game into extra time and spark a 10-minute stoppage marred by flying beverages and scuffles on the field. His final decision arrived justifiably after Torres bundled Carlos Vela to the ground, but the damage was already well and truly carried out.
Guardado converted both penalties to rescue Mexico after another dire performance and salvage a place in the final on Sunday. After all of this drama, El Tri stands poised to win the tournament if it summons a performance against the dogged Jamaicans.
That grand occasion felt a world away as the Panamanian bench rushed the field en masse at the final whistle. They surrounded Geiger to vent their frustrations about the demise of their Gold Cup hopes. Geiger and his referee crew exited the field with a heavy security presence and under a shower of beverages thrown from the stands to round off this ridiculous night in predictable fashion.
Panama coach Hernan Gomez called the equalizer a "stolen goal" and said he was left with "immense sadness."
"I ask myself why did this happen?" Gomez said through a translator. "We were doing everything well. It is very sad. We are people of football and I still can’t believe this happened and I wonder if this really happened."
The players showed how they felt in this postgame team photo. Translated, the sign reads “CONCACAF Thieves” and “Corrupt.”
There were few signs of the incredulity to follow in the relatively tame early stages. Mexico established dominion in possession and but demonstrated a rather infuriating habit of wasting it. There were plenty of passes and plenty of runs from side to side without any tangible end product. Paul Aguilar provided the only modest test for Panama keeper Jaime Penedo as El Tri squandered its advantage and waited for a chance to truly carve open the dogged Panamanians.
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It arrived through an aerial challenge and a decision by the referee. Tejada jumped with Rodriguez near the halfway line, stole a glance and thrust his arm behind him. The resulting forearm blow made some contact, but Rodriguez crumpled to the ground while holding his face to amplify the incident. Referee Geiger immediately bounded over and reached into his back pocket to send off Tejada.
Panama reacted furiously to the decision and their complaints were largely justified by the replays. The match stopped for several minutes amid protests and scuffles as the teams indulged in nonsense in the wake of the dismissal. Armando Cooper appeared to shove Geiger at one point during the fray, but Tejada remained the only player dispatched after he eventually trudged off the field.
The farcical few minutes eventually ended with Panama somehow grasping control of the proceedings as halftime approached. Los Canaleros posed the greater threat by attacking through the wide areas and taking advantage of El Tri’s evident letdown. Valentin Pimentel nearly made them pay dearly on the stroke of halftime, but Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa pushed the header over the bar to ensure these nasty proceedings entered the interval all square.
Mexico boss Miguel Herrera revamped his approach at halftime in a bid to spark more incisiveness from his team. Carlos Esquivel climbed off the bench and replaced Oswaldo Alanis to facilitate a switch to a 4-4-2 formation. The alterations offered little genuine influence on the game and set the stage for Panama to seize the advantage just before the hour.
The breakthrough arrived from a wicked corner kick served from the right. Erick Davis whipped the ball with considerable swerve toward the back post. Torres judged the flight well and started his run on Rodriguez. He jumped over the top of the veteran defender and nodded home to spark wild celebrations and a shower of beer cups thrown onto Panamanian players in the corner.
El Tri responded by introducing Jesus Corona in place of Hector Herrera in a bid to belatedly engineer a way through. Those efforts sputtered through the next 10 minutes or so as the Panamanians kept their blocks well and forced Mexico to retain simple possession and search for half-chances.
Most of the genuine threats came when Panama ventured forward with its 10 men. Alberto Quintero cut inside and prompted a fine, one-handed save from Ochoa with his blast from the top of the penalty area. Those forays were few and far between as Panama focused intently on maintaining discipline and packing numbers behind the ball.
It looked like those efforts would see Panama through to the final until one last twist and another suspect refereeing decision plunged this night into chaos once more.
Mexico cobbled together a decent sequence to play the ball over the top of the Panamanian line. Torres attempted to clear, but he scuffed his overhead kick. He then fell directly onto the ball before Penedo rushed out to collect it. The movement prompted Geiger to point to the pot and spark a fracas that engulfed the Georgia Dome for the next several minutes.
The teams came together near midfield, breaking into a scuffle as the benches emptied. Beverages rained onto the field as the fans bombarded the Panamanian contingent with at least one Panama player responding in kind. Officials huddled along the sideline and tried to sift through the wreckage before somehow restarting the game.
Guardado kept his composure amid the tumult and thrashed his penalty into the corner as he did in a similar situation Sunday. Once again, Mexico emerged from the depths of despair courtesy of a controversial decision and skated by without rebuke.
The good fortune continued as the first half of extra time wound to a close as Geiger once again pointed to the spot. This time there were few doubts about Torres’ barge into Vela’s back. There were even fewer doubts about Guardado’s resulting penalty into the lower corner to give Mexico the lead as the first period of extra time concluded.
The teams played out the final 15 minutes, but this outcome was sealed from the moment Guardado placed his team in front. The entire night left Panama to wonder how its place in the final slipped away and thrust Mexico into a position to somehow, some way claim the Gold Cup in Philadelphia on Sunday.
"This is not the ideal situation," Mexico coach Miguel Herrera said. "It wasn’t the ideal way to win."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.