El Tri role reversal: Gold Cup, up; Olímpico, down

El Tri seemed to be a step behind Japan all game in their Olympics groups stage match won by the hosts 2-1. (Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images)
El Tri seemed to be a step behind Japan all game in their Olympics groups stage match won by the hosts 2-1. (Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images) /
El Tri role reversal
Honduras goalie Luis Lopez swiped the ball from Jonathan Dos Santos just as the Mexican midfielder appeared set to score Mexico’s opener. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

What a difference a day makes! Heading into the weekend, pundits were arguing about which El Tri squad was better – the senior team at the Gold Cup or the U-23 team in Tokyo.

After Mexico manhandled Honduras 3-0 to advance to the Gold Cup semifinals and Japan raced past El Tri Olímpico in a group stage match, the tune has suddenly changed.

Granted, Honduras was playing shorthanded, missing a couple players to injury and several more to Covid protocols, but the poor display in the first half against Japan sure made Jaime Lozano’s Olympic team appear unprepared.

Perhaps now scribes will opine with more equanimity about Mexico’s two fútbol teams. Then again, this is the Mexican sporting media we’re talking about, so fat chance of that.

45 minutes were all the difference for El Tri … in both games

In Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday night, El Tri put the ball in the net three times before halftime, then ran out the clock to ease into the Final Four of the Concacaf Gold Cup.

Mexico should have been up 3-0 before the game was 10 minutes old, but failed to finish clear scoring chances (Héctor Herrera’s point-blank header was saved in minute 2; then Rogelio Funes Mori and Jonathan dos Santos each lost a 1-v-1 on the Honduras goalie after being sent free into the box).

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No matter, El Tri found the target three times in a 12-minute stretch as Gerardo Martino’s men overwhelmed the outmanned Hondurans. Funes Mori scored off a header (from a nice cross by Luis “Chaka” Rodríguez) in minute 26 to get Mexico on the board, and the floodgates opened.

Dos Santos converted from inside the half-moon in minute 31, volleying a short clearance after a chance created by Orbelín Pineda’s diagonal run. Pineda closed out the scoring in minute 38, sending a powerful header inside the near post off a crisp cross from “Tecatito” Corona.

Lest you think the result eliminated the questions that had a risen from Mexico’s sub-par performance in the group stage, there are still issues to address.

Goalie Alfredo Talavera made several gaffes that were covered up by defenders and Honduras’ inability to follow up. “Tala” did make a splendid save in minute 53, however, palming away a golden chance for the Central Americans after the midfield was caught too far upfield.

Funes Mori continues to squander scoring chances. In addition to the stumble mentioned above, the striker was carelessly offside to annul his own goal in minute 41 and he shanked another opportunity later on. The controversial forward has scored four times in five games with El Tri since earning citizenship, but he should have at least eight.

In Japan, El Tri Olímpico ran into a first-half buzz-saw in its second group-stage game, looking flat-footed at times.

Japan was quicker to the ball, quicker on the ball and quicker away from the ball. Mexico won very few 1-v-1 battles and the team’s passing was not terribly crisp.

A swift three-man counter-attack from the hosts resulted in a goal just 6 minutes into the match, and a César Montes penalty 5 minutes later (his second in as many games) made the score 2-0. Japan did not let up, maintaining its tactical shape at high speed, and they pressed effectively all over the pitch. They swarmed over midfield, forcing El Tri to look for space down the flanks where they’d be squeezed against the sideline. When Mexico regained possession and turned to move forward, Japan already had seven men back.

A late goal by Roberto Alvarado could be significant as it boosted Mexico’s goal differential to a +2, keeping El Tri ahead of France (–2, thanks to its 4-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday) in the group standings.

Mexico closes out its group schedule against winless South Africa, while France and Japan square off in a game where a tie would ensure Mexico’s passage into the knockout round.

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Two bits of bad news for El Tri, however. Left back Erick Aguirre limped off injured late in the first half, looking like he pulled a hamstring while sprinting to chase down a Japan break down his wing. He could be done for the tournament. Secondly, defender Johan Vázquez was red-carded in minute 68 and will miss the South Africa match.