El Tri Olímpico returns from Tokyo with bronze medal in hand

Team Mexico players celebrate after defeating host Japan to win the Olympic bronze medal. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Team Mexico players celebrate after defeating host Japan to win the Olympic bronze medal. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images) /
El Tri - bronze
Sebastián Córdova (No. 17) converts a penalty kick for Team Mexico in minute 13 of the bronze-medal match vs Japan. El Tri went on ti win 3-1. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) /

El Tri is coming home with a medal, only Mexico’s second piece of Olympic fútbol hardware ever.

After a crushing shoot-out loss to Brazil in the semifinal, Jaime Lozano’s men summoned the energy to fight past host Japan to claim bronze thanks to a goal and two assists from América’s No. 10 Sebastián Córdova.

The 3-1 win was a bit of revenge: Japan defeated El Tri back in 1968 – also in the bronze-medal match – when Mexico City hosted the Olympics. That remains the only Olympic medal for the Samurai Blue who had hopes of claiming the gold before its overtime loss to Spain in the semis.

The victory also avenged Mexico’s 2-1 group-stage loss to the hosts.

Let’s hope ‘Tata’ was paying attention

Several members of the “Under-23” roster and all three senior players deserve recognition for stand-out performances at the Tokyo Games and nearly half the 22-man squad merit consideration from “Tata” Martino heading into September’s World Cup qualifiers. Quite a few might get long-distance calls from European area codes in the coming days.

Guillermo Ochoa stood tall between the posts, but we’ve come to expect that. The América keeper made a key block in the opener against France when the match was still scoreless, and had five saves in the finale against Japan. Two of the 7 goals he conceded (in six matches) came from the penalty spot and three others made the highlights for Best Goals of the Tokyo Olympics.

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Pumas defender Johan Vázquez, 22, could be inserted into the senior line-up and Team Mexico would not miss a beat. I feel certain Ochoa –Martino’s top choice with the senior side – would concur.

The lanky back-liner made only one mistake – a late ejection against Japan in the group stage when he was forced to stop a counter with El Tri losing 2-0 – and he headed home Mexico’s second in the rematch off a set piece.

Striker Henry Martín quieted the naysayers with his performance, netting three times while occupying defenders with effort and positioning. His battles – and he has the bruises to ratify the use of that word – opened spaces for the wingers, and his post play, ball movement and defensive contributions were outstanding. If he can stay healthy, he will get an invitation from “Tata” in September.

Three stars for El Tri Olímpico

The big three for coach Lozano were Alexis Vega, Sebastián Córdova and Luis Romo. This trio were already regulars in Martino’s rotation and figure to star for El Tri at more than one World Cup.

Vega, 23, was selected as one of the top four players in the group stage, attracting attention with his slick ball handling, his passing and his willingness to track back and apply pressure. The Chivas man finished with 3 goals and 2 assists, but his omnipresence was perhaps the most valuable contribution.

Córdova, 24, started off slowly in Tokyo, but eventually settled into a playmaking role, providing steady link-up play that allowed El Tri to consistently probe the opponents’ defensive third. The Aguascalientes native is so smooth that it is often easy to overlook the contributions he makes to build-up play. He led Mexico with 4 goals (two from the penalty spot) and 3 assists, two of which came in the bronze-medal contest (picture-perfect deliveries off set pieces).

Romo, 26, was the MVP for El Tri Olímpico, a real beast in the middle of the pitch. He relentlessly pursued rivals, disrupting opponents’ moves forward and tackling efficiently, while also hustling forward to add numbers in the offensive third. His goal in the quarterfinals against South Korea – to give Mexico a 2-0 lead in a game El Tri would win 6-3 – was the Goal of the Games. The Cruz Azul man raced into the box to trap a long pass from Vega then volleyed a laser with his left foot before the ball hit the ground.

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With these and other Olympians available to coach Martino, the future for El Tri does not look as bleak as it did after Mexico’s second consecutive loss to Team USA.