Still plenty of work ahead for Mexico


Image courtesy Mexsport Sports Agency

Raúl Jiménez’s stunning bicycle kick constituted just one spectacular moment in Mexico’s 2-1 victory over Panama on Friday night. But Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich must process more than just the fallout from Jiménez’s stunning late winner. There is plenty of work still ahead for El Tri over the next few days. A place in the World Cup playoff against New Zealand isn’t assured just yet.


Only a result in Costa Rica on Tuesday will continue the salvage work — considerably aided by Jiménez’s moment of brilliance — and keep those hopes of a trip to Brazil next summer alive. In order to move forward in their quest, Vucetich and his players must address the positives and negatives from a night they will never forget.

1. Keep the ambition and the shape: Mexico faces a different challenge requiring a more modest deportment when it takes the field in San José, but its desperation-induced win was a refreshing change from the impotence displayed under José Manuel de la Torre. Vucetich underscored his tactical acumen by plumping for a 4-4-2 setup and tailoring it to the players at his disposal. The execution waned a bit in the second half, but the structure offers El Tri a foundation to build upon.

2. Herald the importance of overlapping fullbacks: Considerable space opened in midfield when Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo ventured into the attacking half. Layún and Torres Nilo supplied that additional dimension by creating room for Javier Aquino and Giovani dos Santos to cut toward the middle and providing good service from the wide areas. Vucetich can persist with the inverted wingers if he chooses, but his reliance on Layún and Torres Nilo appears compulsory at the moment. One caveat: both players must tend to their defensive duties more judiciously away from home.

Image courtesy Getty Images

3. Reinforce the need to retain possession in midfield: Carlos Peña served as the primary offender in this department, though he certainly had some help along the way. Peña operates with the ambition and the fervor lacking in central midfield for much of this year, but his desire to stamp his imprint on the game often prompts him to concede possession in poor areas. Jesús Zavala covers for him well (more on that bit in a moment) without providing a permanent solution to this problem. Panama did not punish Mexico for this, but Costa Rica could do so on Tuesday.

4. Underscore the need to retain proper defensive shape: Zavala stood out as one of the top performers for El Tri because he adjusted to the demands of the game and played to the strengths of his teammates. Vucetich asked Zavala to operate from a deep-lying position in midfield and slide between centerbacks Hugo Ayala and Rafa Márquez in possession. By adding an auxiliary third center back into the mix, Mexico retained the proper numbers when Rafa Márquez stepped into midfield to distribute or the fullbacks meandered forward.

The calculus changes a bit away from home, though. Zavala will still drop from time to time, but the back four must retain its shape religiously. Rafa Márquez, in particular, must marshal his defense astutely in order to avoid the problems that led to Luis Tejada’s equalizer (primarily a poor clearing header from Ayala, but also poor adjustments to the quick change in possession) and submit the resolute display required to claim a point or three.image

Image courtesy Getty Images

5. Ponder where Chicharito fits into the mix: The clamor for Jiménez’s inclusion increased exponentially when he smashed home that bicycle kick. If he does feature from the start (a risky move that would reduce the problems he causes opponents with his speed late in games), then he would likely replace Javier Hernández in the starting XI. That decision, however, must be made carefully. Hernández functioned well enough with Oribe Peralta, played a neat one-two to arrange Mexico’s only goal from the run of play and posed a threat from time to time. His second half penalty miss betrayed his current dearth of confidence and match practice and counted against him, though.

Perhaps the best course of action for all involved parties – Hernández, Jiménez and Mexico – involves maintaining the newly established partnership and then bringing the young star off the bench. After all, that course of action produced that wonderful goal to win the match, didn’t it?


Raul Jimenez revives Mexico’s World Cup hopes with stunning golazo


Image courtesy of Mexsport Sports Agency

Mexico needed a goal five minutes desperately from time to break the 1-1 stalemate with Panama. There were a million reasons for Raúl Jiménez to try something more practical when Fernando Arce played a diagonal ball into his feet.

And yet, Jimenez didn’t and all of Mexico will thank him for it.

Jimenez drifted into a yard of space at the edge of the penalty area. A clever touch, a deft turn and a stunning shot that injected life into Mexico’s World Cup plans.

Arce’s pass skipped off the surface en route and stripped away the preferred option. The ball approached Jiménez awkwardly, forcing him into a bad touch and presenting him with an gamble previously too audacious to consider.

Jiménez popped the ball up into the air. It ascended into the night sky seemingly in slow motion. He watched it climb with two Panamanian defenders at close attention. And then he summoned the courage to take the only remaining course of action.


Image courtesy of Mexsport Sports Agency

As the ball peaked, Jiménez hurled himself into the air majestically and lashed his right boot toward the ball. The bicycle kick constitutes a desperate effort from this sort of distance, a last resort of strikers with no other alternatives. There is no room for error in the execution. The entire sequence — ball, leap and strike — must come off perfectly in order to give it a chance to succeed.

Jiménez did his part. He connected purely, swinging through with menace and precision. The ball jumped off his foot with the direction and the pace to freeze Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo in place.

Fate did the rest. Jiménez’s perfect confluence of movements carried the ball inside the near post and sparked the sort of celebrations only genuine salvation can bring. Jiménez peeled off toward the right side of the penalty area and reveled in what he had done with his teammates.

The appreciation will continue for some time to come given the magnitude of the 2-1 victory and the quality of the goal. Jiménez rescued Mexico on the night and sustained El Tri’s World Cup hopes for another few days. And he did it because he aspired toward brilliance and delivered in the most compelling way possible.


Five points: Mexico vs. Panama

Previous failures have forced Mexico in a must-win position against Panama tonight. El Tri cannot afford a fifth consecutive match without a victory at Estadio Azteca. Anything less than the full complement of points against the Canaleros will place Mexico in the unenviable position of requiring help from the United States in Panama City on Tuesday to secure a place in a World Cup playoff against New Zealand next month. image

Victor Manuel Vucetich addresses the media. (Photo: Miguel Tovar/Getty Images)

In order to avoid that awkward situation and maintain control of its own destiny, Mexico must absorb the crippling pressure and produce its best home performance of the Hexagonal to dispatch a canny and motivated Panamanian outfit. Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich will hope these five factors spur Mexico to the display required to grab hold of its World Cup hopes.

1. Establish a solid foundation: The recent struggles to score at Estadio Azteca will encourage Mexico to push additional numbers into the attacking half in a bid to rectify the concern. It cannot do so without a coherent plan to adjust its defensive shape accordingly. Vucetich said on Thursday he wants his side to play aggressively without losing the necessary balance in the back. He will likely aid the process by plumping for a 4-4-2 formation to match Julio Dely Valdes’ preferred tactical setup and provide some of the required solidity. The rest will come down to how the players adhere to the instructions set forth and remember the potential pain created by pursuing the game too ardently.


Giovani dos Santos in training. (Photo: Miguel Tovar/Getty Images)

2. Commit the right numbers forward at the right times: Vucetich is expected to select Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo at fullback to boost El Tri’s options in the wide areas. Both players offer more going forward than they do inside their own third. Panama will look to exploit the space created by their forays into the attacking half by moving quickly to exploit the vacated spaces. Mexico must ensure those excursions do not create counterattacking situations where expected central defenders Hugo Ayala and Rafa Márquez must confront the Panamanian forwards – particularly the mobile Gabriel Torres, a likely starter – one-versus-one.

3. Overload the wide areas to create operating room: Mexico functions best when it receives quality contributions on the flanks. In this projected setup, with Giovani dos Santos and Christian Giménez likely to feature as nominal wide players with established tendencies to drift inside, the onus will fall on Layun and Torres Nilo to overlap frequently and provide width. The extra man out wide does a couple of things for El Tri: it creates two-versus-one opportunities with the midfielders to exploit the suspect Panamanian fullbacks and it stretches the normally compact Panamanian shape. It looks likely to work on paper, but it must succeed in practice, too. Layún and Torres Nilo must give Panama a reason to adjust and compensate to their presence by combining well and providing accurate service into the penalty area.


Oribe Peralta and Javier Hernández prepare to face Panama (Photo: Omar Torres/Getty Images)

4. Lean on Oribe Peralta to pull everything together: The Santos Laguna man is expected to partner Javier Hernández up front for Mexico. He operates a bit different than Chicharito does: he is a capable conduit willing to drop off the line to facilitate play and permit other players (in this instance, likely central midfield inclusion and club teammate Carlos Peña) to leap into the attack. His aerial presence – he poses a significant danger despite not boasting the size of a prototypical target man – provides a more direct route to goal if required, too. If Peralta can find a way to influence the game (and perhaps even drag Felipe Baloy a step or two out of position along the way), then Mexico stands a good chance of procuring the points.

5. Trust the special players to make a difference: Vucetich will send out El Tri with a more coherent tactical approach than José Manuel de la Torre ever mustered, but he still must rely on his players to perform. The onus falls upon dos Santos and Hernández – the two superlative players in this squad – to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and spur Mexico to the sort of showing missing so far in this Hexagonal. The two stars must inspire an across-the-board improvement to ensure Mexico retains its World Cup hopes at least through the weekend.


Loud silence permeates Soldier Field before Gold Cup final


Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

By Jamie Trecker, FOXSoccer.com


The Lakeshore Segway riders caromed through Soldier Field’s plaza. They wobbled and weaved, but didn’t hit anyone. There was almost no one to run in to.

This was the Gold Cup final at Soldier Field, an event CONCACAF and the city of Chicago both hoped would fill the lakefront on this unusually chilly July afternoon. Instead, both were to confront the reality that this soccer game was to be a quiet one.

Two hours before kickoff, the sponsor’s tents sat vacant; the speakers at 7UP’s pavilion were turned down so as not to deafen. A group of Panamanian fans posed for the local Univision channel, a rare splash of color on an otherwise quiet afternoon day. Tickets were freely available for $30 – the scalpers that showed up didn’t even make an effort – and some sponsors were simply passing them out to early arrivers.


Photo: Jamie Trecker/FOX Soccer

The reason? Mexico didn’t make the final, and that killed whatever walkup crowd might have showed up. Chicago has an enormous Latino population, and it is overwhelmingly Mexican in origin. One of the biggest communities of Mexican emigrants sits just twenty blocks west of Soldier Field, with Pilsen and Little Village comprising the largest concentration of Mexican ex-pats outside of Mexico City itself.

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The sorry state of the sod in Dallas

By Leander Schaerlaeckens, FOXSoccer.com


It never ceases to be a problem: rolls of grass sod laid over artificial turf for a few days so that a soccer game might feel like an actual soccer game.

The United States men’s national team played on one such field in Seattle during a World Cup qualifier last month and the interim surface held up fairly well. It did too in Baltimore for the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals on Sunday, in spite of the lashing rain.

But this time around, the prospect of playing yet another game on this strange arrangement is a bleak one. The grass laid over the Cowboys Stadium turf for the USA to face Honduras in the Gold Cup semis on Wednesday – and for Mexico to face Panama a few hours later – looks in dreadful shape long before it’s even been played on:

imagePhoto: Leander Schaerlaeckens/FOXSoccer.com

Ahead of their only practice on the field on Tuesday afternoon, the American outfit was predictably diplomatic about the prospects of playing on another such field. (“We’ll deal with it then,” and “Both teams have to play on it,” and other such stock answers were delivered.) But this field must have inspired a real terror in them when they first trod on it.

Frankly, it looks like it was poorly laid, using a poor stock of grass. It is patchy, with long gashes between strips of it that don’t touch or line up. Green sand was being used to fill those holes, but that could do little to make the surface any softer. Walking over it even as a reporter in sneakers, the ground beneath you was noticeably hard and unforgiving. 

How then, will players who have overcome serious knee injuries like Stu Holden or the newly recalled Omar Gonzalez handle playing on it? Will head coach Jurgen Klinsmann risk their health on it at all?

When I asked him how much of a consideration the management of minutes for those recovering from injuries, fresh to the team or indeed in danger of re-aggravating old ailments because of the surface was at this pivotal stage of the tournament, Klinsmann said it wasn’t any different than usual.

But this time it is different. You don’t want to dilute your lineup any for fear of surface-induced injuries. Not in a semifinal. Yet the sorry state of the grass at Cowboys Stadium has made that impossible for him,whether he’ll admit to it or not.


Gold Cup Recap: Mexico, Panama advance to semifinals

As expected, there were no upsets during Saturday’s CONCACAF’s Gold Cup action as Panama and Mexico both stamped their semifinals tickets.

El Tri, a six-time Gold Cup champion going for its third straight title, edged Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 behind Raul Jimenez’s 84th minute strike to help embattled manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre silence his critics for at least one night.

Though Mexico failed to produce a convincing win against the Caribbean nation, Mexican fans will undoubtedly take solace that their beloved national team will live to fight another day:

As for Julio Dely Valdes’ side, Los Canaleros didn’t need long to dispose a Cuban side who looked eager to continue their Gold Cup run after José Ciprian Alfonso opened matters with a beautiful first-touch volley in the 21st minute. Cuba’s lead, however, was short-lived as Panamanian forward Gabriel Torres increased his tournament tally to five goals after two quick strikes in the first half:

The wheels eventually came off for Cuba in the second half after Ariel Martinez was sent off justifiably by referee Mark Geiger for a ruthless challenge on Panama’s Blas Perez in the 58th minute:

Mexico will now face Panama in the Gold Cup semifinals on Wednesday at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. If you recall, Panama upset Mexico 2-1 in a group match and El Tri will surely seek revenge for their hiccup at the Rose Bowl earlier this month.