El Tri let one slip away, but coach Cocca sees glass half-full

Uriel Antuna was one of the stars of the USA-Mexico friendly, scoring El Tri's lone goal with a brilliant solo effort. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Uriel Antuna was one of the stars of the USA-Mexico friendly, scoring El Tri's lone goal with a brilliant solo effort. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /
El Tri USA friendly wrap
El Tri coach Diego Cocca shouts instructions from the bench during Mexico’s 1-1 draw against Team USA on April 19. (Photo by Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

After two days to reflect on the inaugural Allstate Continental Clásico Wednesday night at State Farm Stadium in Arizona, the only realization is that I wasted two days.

Concacaf rivals Mexico and Team USA sent B teams to take part in for a friendly that was given an overwrought title and battled to a rather insipid 1-1 draw.

The result extended the recent streak of U.S. dominance (3 wins and 2 draws since 2021) and provided Sam’s Army with all the bragging rights heading into the June 15 showdown outside Las Vegas.

That one will be certainly be consequential as it is an official match – a Concacaf Nations League semifinal – and it will definitely be worth reflecting on, both before and after the 90 minutes of hostilities.

Coach Cocca and El Tri

Playing with a second-choice squad with only one full day of practice, the new Mexico manager teased up a new tactical alignment, opening the match in a 5-2-3 that morphed into a 3-4-3 as El Tri moved forward with possession.

The formation showed promise but poor performances from left back Jesús Gallardo and central defender Néstor Araujo (both World Cup holdovers) prevented Team Azteca from taking full advantage.

Gallardo was sloppy with possession (two bad passes, in particular, that left Mexico vulnerable) and Araujo (65 caps) showed to be the weaker of the three center backs even though the other two – Israel Reyes and Víctor Guzmán – had 11 caps between them entering the game.

For his part, Uriel Antuna demonstrated once again that he plays much better for country than club. Though hardly error-free (decision-making with the ball still needs fine-tuning), the Cruz Azul man made the play of the game for El Tri.

In minute 55, Antuna stripped U.S. defender Aaron Long near midfield then raced 40 yards with the ball before slotting past Sean Johnson at the right post.

With Mexico enjoying the better of possession and Pachuca teammates Luis Chávez and Erick Sánchez wreaking havoc in midfield, El Tri played ball control for long stretches in the second half while shutting down U.S. moves forward with timely cut-outs.

In minute 80, Mexico began a smooth move forward that started with another Antuna steal. Alongside the half-moon, Roberto de la Rosa found Charlie Rodríguez across the box all alone and the Cementeros playmaker curled a lovely shot around the U.S. goalie only to see it clang off the woodwork.

The U.S. got possession and raced to the other end, finishing off the nifty fast break with the equalizer. The real disappointment was that several Mexico players had a chance to foul Sergiõ Dest as he slalomed out of trouble. Once Dest had advanced it past the half line, El Tri was at a disadvantage and they paid for it.

All in all, coach Cocca said he was encouraged by the performance, commenting that he was a “glass half-full” man. He also voiced satisfaction with how the team maintained tactical shape despite being in a new alignment.

Even better was the equanimity exhibited by the normally prickly Mexican sporting press. Rubén Rodríguez – a columnist at Record – exemplified the pragmatic response, essentially writing tat Mexico was rebuilding, learning and improving, even going so far to urge patience. That’s a far cry from the usual reaction which is typically more akin to a shark feeding frenzy.

Another thing Cocca has been getting credit for is his attendance at Liga MX matches. Cocca and his staff have been a regular presence at league games since taking the job in February.

The diligent scouting of home-based talent is a marked contrast to his predecessor as el Tri boss. Gerardo Martino spent a considerable portion of his time in charge back home in Argentina. Granted, that was partly due to the pandemic, but even as restrictions were eased, Martino was rarely seen at Liga MX stadiums.

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For now, we can put all this behind us and wait for June. The Liga MX season will be over and Cocca will have a full squad in training camp ahead of the all-important Nations League fixture. All we can do is keep fingers crossed that no El Tri stars suffer any serious injuries between now and then.