ROSE BOWL, Pasadena -– Mexico didn't win their opening match of the Gold Cup against Panama. They didn't even secure a draw. Unfortunately for their anxious fans, El Tri lost 2-1 to the Central Americans in the second match of the tournament doubleheader at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. As the final moments of the game ticked away, certain fans were so sure they could do better than the Mexico players that they tried to invade the field to do so. All around the stadium, the chants of "Fuera Chepo!" rang out, and a rain of debris fell as the embattled El Tri coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre walked off the field.
• Mexico 1-2 Panama: El Tri player ratings
The worst part of the match was that the result really wasn't a surprise, though given their world ranking (20) compared to Panama (51), it should be more of a shock.
But while the Panamanian squad engaged in disgraceful time-wasting tactics in the latter stages of the game, they didn't come by their goals cheaply or by fluke happenstance.
The first goal, scored in the seventh minute, was the result of a clumsy attempted tackle by Raul Jimenez in the box on Alberto Quintero. Gabriel Torres neatly put the spot kick away.
Mexico, prodded into action by falling behind, looked to pull even. Marco Fabian was doing anything, everything, and sometimes too much to try to score the equalizer. He pushed his way into position, chased down every pass and battled for every ball. Yet it was Panama that nearly had the second goal of the game. However, Mexico was spared that disgrace when a comedic sequence of missed shots by Panamanian players, followed by Cecilio Waterman's post-bound shot, let the Mexicans off the hook.
The quality of the El Tri squad showed sporadically, like the sun trying to break through the clouds, but one time it shone through, Fabian scored. Just before the final whistle of the first half, Israel Jimenez, who generally had a nightmare of a match defensively, popped a long pass forward that just cleared the Panamanian defense and found the eager Fabian, who put away the pass well.
The draw barely lasted two minutes into the second half. This time, a Quintero cross found Torres, and he fired first-time into the net with the side of his foot. Panama held on to that advantage for their eventual victory.
Mexico can protest that this edition of the national team isn't representative of its top level, given that many big names are absent, but Panama, which was missing Blas Perez for club obligations, could also say the same.
Justifications for the loss are weak, given that the Gold Cup has generally been Mexico's playground. El Tri has the most titles in the tournament's history and it has never before lost an opening match to a CONCACAF team. It wasn't a bad call or a man disadvantage that led to the loss.
Moreover, few could say that the players weren't trying, especially if Fabian was a prime example. Even players who made obvious mistakes or looked poor, like Israel Jimenez or Joel Huiqui, were hustling throughout the match.
Effort alone isn't effective, though. It has to have aim, purpose and a clear strategy -- all of which were clearly lacking from Mexico. Panama's athleticism and quick runs left Mexico's defense exposed time and again. De la Torre and his team wouldn't, or couldn't, come up with any plan or adjustment to the situation, other than the "try, and try again" method. El Tri's vaunted possession game was in tatters, with the midfield having trouble keeping the ball to build any attacking plays.
Fans at the Rose Bowl had had enough. Frankly, Mexico fans in the U.S. are usually the most forgiving El Tri fans, given the nostalgia for their home country that they attach to the team. Many have bemoaned past quick firings of national team coaches. They thought it wise to give de la Torre more time to change things around. So far, though, that tactic has only seen things go from bad to worse.
"Fuera Chepo!" isn't a gleeful chant of rebellion by a few discontented fans anymore. It's becoming a desperate plea by Mexican supporters at large to Mexico's administration to do something quickly to save the team they used to know and love.