Mexico supremacy no longer assured

Posted by Andrea Canales

Mexico's Adrián Aldrete watches on as Blas Perez celebrates his goal.GettyImagesMexico's Adrián Aldrete watches on as Blas Perez celebrates his goal.

Mexico's 2-1 loss to Panama in the Gold Cup semifinal heralds a new open season in the CONCACAF tournament, just as it likely brings down the curtain on the era of Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre as coach of El Tri.

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It had become almost a ritual for Mexico and the USA to meet in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final: three times in a row, with El Tri winning the past two championships. With a total of six trophies in hand, Mexico's place as the proverbial "Giant of CONCACAF" seemed secure after a period during which the USA had threatened to steal that claim. When Mexico added FIFA youth World Cup titles and Olympic gold to its trophy case, regional supremacy appeared to be assured for some time to come.

Then came the turn of the year and some true tests began for de la Torre. The warning signs came fast and furious as his top players -- aside from Carlos Vela, who refused to play for the Mexico squad he was once so proud to represent -- failed to fire offensively in draw after draw. World Cup qualifying results have been minimal. The Confederations Cup was a bust. And now the Gold Cup team has failed to reach the final. Though different players rotated across many of Mexico's games this year, all the El Tri squads had one sad aspect in common: They didn't play well.

Another factor in common, of course, was the coaching by de la Torre.

A coach may train players, encourage them, determine the lineup, formation and game strategy, but ultimately, a team's fate is decided by those playing in the game. Yet that's part of the reason why so many have been puzzled at Mexico's halting progress in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The quality of many of the Liga MX players seemed to dwarf what was available to the much smaller Central American and Caribbean countries. That presumably gave de la Torre, even if his coaching tactics were lacking, an advantage that many felt would make Mexico's road to the final relatively easy.

No one gave Panama that memo, however. The Canaleros gave proof to their lack of respect for Mexico's Gold Cup legacy earlier in the campaign, defeating El Tri 2-1 in their first game of the tournament. Then they did it again, as though to again prove their own ability and Mexico's diminished stature in the region. Cheap time-wasting tactics aside, Panama was sharper in the attack, more solid in defense and created more chances than Mexico did throughout both games.

Panama scored first in the semifinal off a blast by Blas Perez that left Jonathan Orozco helpless. Mexico struck back with a goal orchestrated by Marco Fabian and finished by Luis Montes. But Roman Torres had the last word, his second-half header winning the game for Panama.

After the semifinal ended, Panama players didn't quite start dancing and singing, "Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?" Yet the message sent out to other CONCACAF nations is clear enoug: Mexico is nothing to fear anymore.

It's simply dangerous for any squad to appear vulnerable when World Cup qualifying is at stake. But with de la Torre at the helm, Mexico often seemed to be confused, badly positioned, playing with fear and, most of all, playing with a lack of understanding of how to best work together.

That was really the difference in this match. Panama played as a team that was more than the sum of its parts. Mexico played like a collection of parts that weren’t connected, while their coach acted like someone who had lost the instructions to put them together.

Now that Mexico is out of the Gold Cup, the question of whether de la Torre will exit now remains. The hubris of the Mexican federation is evident by how it has been ignoring all the early danger signs and continued to trust in de la Torre and his coaching process, even when all the results went south. Clearly, few in the administration wanted to oust the politically connected coach. Now, with fans ritualistically chanting, "Fuera Chepo," the pressure is building for the federation to act.

Yet there are those who probably hope de la Torre stays on, namely Honduran fans, who hope to see their team topple Mexico in the upcoming World Cup qualifier. Just as Mexico did, Honduras fell short of the Gold Cup final as well, losing 3-1 to the USA. Witnessing Panama's success against El Tri, however, likely gives other squads hope for the future, reminding all that with a united effort, giants can always be brought down to earth.

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