Mexico starts with tough Gold Cup test

Mexico scheduled a pair of friendlies against domestic club sides this week in a bid to prepare for the task ahead against Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup opener (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET).

These sorts of matches – encounters against half-fit club sides preparing for the start of the domestic season – should have provided an opportunity for this makeshift El Tri side to find its footing and work out the kinks ahead of the difficult opening fixture against Julio Dely Valdes’ side at the Rose Bowl.

Instead of constructing the necessary foundation for the toil ahead, El Tri instead raised more questions about the quest to claim a third straight title. Results do not matter in these bounce games, but impressions do. And a pair of defeats against Cruz Azul Hidalgo and Querétaro over the past week created a rather inescapable perception that this particular outfit isn’t prepared for the gauntlet ahead.

“With the games we played in Mexico, some of them played well, some didn’t play well," said Mexico manager Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre in a press conference on Saturday. "There were some deficiencies in some areas. They have to get to know each other and exploit their qualities within the plan"

It’s a notion de la Torre and his players must dispel in short order. The truncated training camp prior to this competition at least offered an opportunity to establish the requisite level of familiarity and fitness, if not the necessary sharpness. Now they must rise to the occasion in front of a friendly crowd in southern California order to start their Gold Cup journey in the correct fashion.

De la Torre must rely on a cadre of inexperienced internationals to churn out the necessary victory against a well-drilled Panama side stripped of defensive fulcrum Felipe Baloy. This squad possesses enough talent to march deep into the tournament, but it must harness it wisely in order to proceed as expected.

Raúl Jiménez stands out as the potential lynchpin in those efforts given his recent inclusion with the first team. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s overwhelming presence has limited his opportunities, but Jiménez possesses the ability and the pace to unsettle every side in this competition. The Club América star will expect to continue his transition to the international level and press his claims for more playing time in vital fixtures with a series of assured displays over the next few weeks.

Jimenez’s ability to stretch defenses offers a necessary dose of variety to the blunt (Javier Orozco) and clever (Marco Fabián and Rafael Márquez Lugo) alternatives at de la Torre’s disposal. He must find a way to exploit the gaps in a Panamanian rearguard that must adjust without its captain. Most importantly, he must take his chances ruthlessly for a side that must first show it can create opportunities with some consistency.

De la Torre often plumps for workmanlike options in the center of the park, but he may require more dexterity in this competition to cajole his side forward and supply Jiménez with the required support. Club León midfielder Carlos Peña supplies an enticing option as a box-to-box operator if he deviates from the status quo, though he isn’t necessarily capable of providing the final pass. His industry could prove crucial against a workmanlike Panama midfield. His efforts will require ample support from de la Torre’s chosen holding player – Alejandro Castro and Jorge Enríquez will vie for that role if they are not selected in tandem – in order to keep the ball moving into the wide areas.

Mexico will rely on Raúl Jiménez’s form in attack during their Gold Cup opener vs. Panama (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

The chosen options in midfield must guard against direct and quick play on the counter. Dely Valdes allowed Blas Perez to remain with FC Dallas through Sunday night’s match against LA Galaxy before linking up with the team, but the presence of Rolando Blackburn can still cause some concerns for the rearguard. De la Torre must lean on his chosen pairing in central defense – de la Torre will likely choose two from Joel Huiqui, Leobardo Lopez, Jair Pereira and Juan Carlos Valenzuela – to ensure the Panamanians do not nick a soft goal on the break or off a set piece. The perpetual uncertainty in the fullback positions may not hurt as much in this affair, though, with Panama lacking in menacing wide options

Although Panama is not a particularly dynamic side, it is a formidable outfit capable of collecting a result and derailing Mexico’s anticipated ascent to the top of Group A. El Tri must establish the rhythm it could not find against lesser opposition in the buildup to the Gold Cup to ensure the troubling signs from those meaningless matches do not translate into pervasive difficulties as the tournament unfolds.

"We have a lot of qualities, skills and strengths," added de la Torre. "[Mexico] have to go from less to more. Tomorrow, we will start the competition hoping we can do this well and hoping that we have a good result. "