Mexico answers call in clutch time
Palpable concern permeated through the primarily green-clad crowd at the Georgia Dome in the final 10 minutes of Mexico's 1-0 CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal win over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday night.
This match presented more problems than El Tri or its supporters likely expected. The gulf between the teams on paper looked sizable, but Trinidad's cohesive and robust effort closed the gap significantly. Mexico squandered its fair share of chances. Trinidad goalkeeper Jan Michael Williams repelled a few more as part of his stellar display. And Mexico's continued inability to break the deadlock turned the raucous atmosphere of the first half into a quiet, expectant buzz during the latter stages of the second.
Normal order – such as it is at the moment – resumed six minutes from time. Miguel Layún embarked upon the latest in a series of forays up the right flank and served an inviting ball toward the near post. Raúl Jiménez reached it first and slotted it inside the far post to see off the determined Trinidadians and set up the much-anticipated semifinal date with Panama in Arlington, Tex. on Wednesday.
Although Mexico did not produce the type of performance necessary to assuage all of the doubts about its ability to win this tournament, it did enough to pass this awkward test and sustain its title defense for another match.
“It was really hard,” Layún said. “It took a while for us to get that goal. I think the patience we showed in this game was really important. We have to do that in all of our games. We were trying to score in the first minutes. If it doesn't come, then we have to wait and be patient until our midfielders create the opportunities and we score.”
It took a bit longer than expected against a resolute opponent capable of frustrating Mexico for long stretches and pushing forward menacingly for counterattacking and set piece opportunities. Trinidad packed the middle of the field and shunted most of the play wide. Those tactics created plenty of operating room for Layún to fly up the right side and supply ample service from the flank, but it also closed down the space for the likes of Marco Fabián, Luis Montes and Carlos Peña through the middle.
Mexico still carved out its fair share of opportunities despite the enforced restrictions. Rafael Márquez Lugo forced Williams into an early save during a bright opening period. Peña hit the side of the net from a clever Márquez Lugo layoff. And Jiménez hit the near post with an acrobatic attempt with the outside of his right foot shortly after play resumed.
“The team looked for options down the flanks,” Mexico coach José Manuel de la Torre said after the match. “We had some opportunities, but we were unable to finish. We were knocking on the door consistently, more consistently than in past games.”
Converting isn't the same as knocking, though, and Trinidad held out defiantly into the final quarter of an hour. It even looked like the upstarts might nick one when Kenwyne Jones – a true leader from the front based upon this display – headed wide and Seon Power watched the latest in a long line of driven shots from distance charged down en route.
Few could have argued if the match entered into extra time based on the determination present in this Trinidad display, but Jiménez relieved the tension shortly thereafter to permit this exuberant, record-breaking crowd (54,229, the largest crowd to see a soccer game in Georgia Dome history) to celebrate at the final whistle. On the whole, they deserved their release after nervously watching their heroes fumble around in their attempts to put this game beyond doubt.
El Tri must improve significantly ahead of the midweek clash against Panama to avoid a second straight defeat to Los Canaleros. It must devise how to cope with the direct threats of Gabriel Torres and Blas Pérez after dealing with free kicks and long throws unconvincingly and watching Jones unsettle them for most of this night. And it must locate more thrust through the middle of the park – de la Torre shifted Fabián into that department for the final 20 minutes or so in search of a solution – to create the balance required against a well-drilled Panamanian outfit.
Most of those issues will receive more scrutiny in the coming days, but the final result mattered more on this night. De la Torre harped on the importance of moving forward and winning the match. And the lessons learned here – particularly in terms of poise necessary to emerge victorious in this sort of affair – could prove useful as Mexico prepares for the trip to Cowboys Stadium on Wednesday.
“The best thing we did tonight was to make sure we did not hurry,” Márquez Lugo said. “We know that we have the pressure to win. Instead of hurrying and playing crazy, we went along the same line. We continued to play well on the ball. In the end, I think we deserved the goal and to be in the semifinals.”