There was entertainment aplenty in one of the most remarkable Gold Cup matches ever witnessed, yet a 4-4 draw with Trinidad and Tobago offered little for Mexico to reflect fondly upon. Indeed, perhaps the only saving grace was that El Tri remain alive in the Gold Cup and still with a chance to put things right.
But the bare facts alone make for uncomfortable reading. A draw in the rollercoaster encounter in Charlotte meant that Mexico could only finish second in a group containing Cuba, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, three teams that have vastly inferior talent. It also means that a quarterfinal now awaits against last year’s World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica in New Jersey on Sunday.
Yet the disappointment wasn’t merely confined to the result. Mexico had gone into the match on the back of a frustrating scoreless outcome against Guatemala, which harked back to recent and less recent failures to provide the inspiration required to turn its dominance of possession into goals.
Frustratingly, that issue appeared on its way to being resolved for much of Wednesday’s encounter. The relief when Paul Aguilar put Mexico in front just past the half-hour mark against Trinidad was palpable, prompting wild celebrations from the players and coach Miguel Herrera on the sidelines. With a “B” squad having been dumped out of the Copa America at the group stage and the first-choice players failing to alleviate the gloom once returning to the fold, the pressure on both the team and its charismatic coach was intense. This seemed like it had the potential to be a pivotal breakthrough moment. When Carlos Vela showed the full-range of his abilities with a fine individual goal shortly after the interval, Mexico was on the path to entering the quarterfinals in jubilant spirits.
Instead, what followed was a horrific 13-minute spell that demonstrated not only that Mexico has plenty of problems at the other end of the pitch from its attack, but that there is also a worrying lack of both mental and physical resilience. Trinidad scored three goals in that period, with Kenwyne Jones bullying Mexico’s backline, and especially Francisco “Maza” Rodríguez. Without the injured Héctor Moreno and still worryingly dependent upon 36-year-old Rafa Márquez, Mexico were vulnerable to every Trinidad attack. After Mexico had miraculously gone back in front with two late goals, the defense was to come up short once again to allow Trinidad to score a late equalizer that means it’s Costa Rica rather than Panama that will stand in Mexico’s way in the last eight.
Herrera switched back to his favored 5-3-2 formation for the match, yet the trend continued of him failing to get the most out of talented players. Perhaps only captain Andrés Guardado is truly steeping up to meet what’s demanded as Mexico seeks to regain Concacaf superiority and earn a playoff with the United States for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup. And Mexico’s hopes going into the quarterfinals have been dealt a further blow by Giovani dos Santos injuring his left abductor muscle and likely to miss out on Sunday.
Perhaps the only encouragement for Mexico right now comes from the status of their quarterfinal opponents. Costa Rica came into the competition looking to back up its superb run in Brazil last summer and prove themselves a real force to be reckoned with alongside Mexico and the U.S. in Concacaf. But thus far the main takeaway has perhaps been just how huge the contribution of coach Jorge Luis Pinto was and how big a mistake Costa Rica made in letting him go. Under the Colombian, Costa Rica were one of the tactically shrewdest teams at the 2014 World Cup, pushing up its defense to pressure the opposition and hit incisively on the break.
After Pinto’s departure following the tournament, the Costa Rican Federation took a major gamble in appointing 38-year-old former national team striker Paulo Wanchope, whose coaching experience was largely limited to assisting Pinto. So far the decision looks like a misstep. Costa Rica have now failed to win in any of its eight games in 2015, and could only draw all three of its group matches at the Gold Cup. In failing to defeat Jamaica, El Salvador or Canada, Costa Rica have so far dramatically failed to justify its tag as legitimate contenders to win its first Concacaf title since 1989. While the team doesn’t look nearly as well organized without the ball as under Pinto, it is also far less decisive when it does have it.
For both Costa Rica and Mexico there remain chances to eradicate the memory of poor Group stage performances, but the time for second chances has now run out.
Date and time: Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
Prediction: With both teams having massively underwhelmed so far, it’s difficult to predict which one will step up in a matchup that many expected to occur far later in the competition. If Costa Rica can get the likes of Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell to combine then they can undoubtedly threaten Mexico’s porous defense. But that combination has been lacking so far and the Ticos don’t seem nearly as sure of their roles as in the World Cup. Mexico, if they can recover their poise after the drama and disappointment against Tobago, could just edge through.
Predicted score: Mexico over Costa Rica, 2-1