El Tri Olímpico: 3 takeaways from group stage

Alexis Vega (#11) celebrates with Uriel Antuna after the latter served up the pass that led to Mexico's opening goal against South Africa. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)
Alexis Vega (#11) celebrates with Uriel Antuna after the latter served up the pass that led to Mexico's opening goal against South Africa. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images) /
El Tri moves on in Tokyo
Luis Romo watches as his shot gets past South Africa goalie Ronwen Williams to give Mexico a 2-0 lead just before halftime. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images) /

On Saturday, Mexico will play its first Olympics knock-out game since the 2012 final in Wembley when El Tri brought home the gold with a 2-1 win over Brazil.

Jimmy Lozano’s squad handily defeated South Africa 3-0 on Wednesday to advance out of the group stage at an Olympic soccer tournament for the fifth time in history. El Tri finished second in Group A behind Japan with a 2-1-0 record and its reward is a quarterfinals match-up against a very fine South Korea team.

Saturday’s contest in Yokohama will mark the third consecutive Olympics featuring a Mexico-South Korea game. El Tri battled the Koreans to a scoreless draw in their opening group stage match in London 2012, while in 2016 the “Taegeuk Warriors” edged Mexico 1-0 in the final group stage match, a result that ended El Tri’s attempt to defend its gold medal triumph.

It’s clear that El Tri has the talent to compete for a medal, but coach Lozano knows there are a few areas to work on. With this in mind, here are three takeaways from Mexico’s performance thus far.

Midfield ‘stars’ missing in action

Carlos Rodríguez, Sebastián Córdova and J.J. Esquivel controlled play for long stretches of the Concacaf qualifying tournament. Córdova recorded a hat trick in Mexico’s group stage opener in the qualifiers, a 4-1 win over the Dominican Republic (Rodríguez scored the fourth goal) and the América playmaker led the tournament with four goals and two assists. Rodríguez served as the linchpin between the forward line and the back line, playing a part in many offensive chances created by El Tri. Esquivel was impeccable in front of the defense.

Thus far in the Olympics, Córdova has been off form despite a goal against France. His passing is wayward (especially set pieces) and his assertiveness erratic. The native of Aguascalientes has struggled since injuries disrupted his Liga MX season (after the qualifiers). Rodríguez has been mostly invisible in Tokyo, just an occasional contributor which is unusual for the sprightly midfielder who has earned a spot on the senior team thanks to incisive performances with Monterrey. C-Rod did not have a memorable play in Tokyo until late against South Africa (a beauty of a wall pass that sprang Henry Martín free for Mexico’s third goal) but followed that up with a bonehead ejection that will keep him out of the South Korea game. Esquivel has been displaced by senior player Luis Romo, but he has seen action as a second-half sub in all three matches.

Lozano’s senior picks were spot on

With spots reserved for three senior players as per Olympics rules, coach Lozano picked senior El Tri netminder Guillermo Ochoa, Liga MX Liguilla MVP Luis Romo in midfield and América goal-scorer Henry Martín.

Ochoa’s selection was a no-brainer and although “Memo” has not sparkled so far, that is primarily because he has not been asked to make critical saves. Two of the three goals he has allowed came from the penalty spot and the El Tri captain did deny France a sure goal when the score was just 1-0.

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Romo has been a stud in midfield and his time with Cruz Azul might be cut short if European teams are watching tape of El Tri Olímpico. His positioning and pressing have been stellar and his goal against South Africa just before halftime basically secured passage into the knockout stage.

Of the three senior picks, Martín was the one most questioned. Niggling injuries reduced his effectiveness for América down the stretch of the Guardianes 2021 and that opened the door for naturalized Mexican Rogelio Funes Mori to win the starting job with the senior team at the Gold Cup. But Martín has been a beast in the center of attack in Tokyo. His hold-up play in the face of opposing defenses has given space to wingers Alexis Vega and Diego Lainez/Uriel Antuna. He has proven very effective at maneuvering in traffic and his vision with the ball at his feet has been impeccable. His pass to Antuna set the stage for Mexico’s opening goal against South Africa.

El Tri must focus on discipline

Coach Lozano can’t be too happy with the occasional lapses in concentration that have cropped up. Against Japan, defender Johan Vázquez was shown red for chopping down Ritsu Doan on a breakaway and Charlie Rodríguez suffered the same fate against South Africa. Vázquez might get a pass (not from me) since El Tri was losing 2-0 and a third goal would have slammed the door shut, but Rodríguez clattered into a breaking Luther Singh about 40 meters from goal, with El Tri leading 3-0. Plus Mexico was playing with a man advantage at the time.

Playing against a disciplined South Korea side, Lozano knows his men can’t afford mental lapses. Lazy passes and poor decisions (there were many against Japan) will turn into counterattacks against the winners of the Asian Football Confederation qualifying tournament. The defense can ill afford to be caught flat-footed.

Communication and concentration will be key if El Tri hopes to advance to the semifinals and earn a shot at a medal.

The absence of Rodríguez could open the door for Esquivel to return to the starting line-up (moving Romo further up the field, or perhaps playing Romo and Esquivel as a double-pivot). Such a move could provide a steadier platform from which El Tri moves forward into attack mode.

Next. El Tri role reversal. dark

No doubt, Memo Ochoa will provide guidance for the back line, but tactical discipline and sound decision-making will determine Mexico’s fate. Coach Lozano will surely emphasize the importance of these factors as El Tri looks to climb the medal stand in Tokyo in 10 days’ time.