By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jul 3, 2019) US Soccer Players - There's no denying that Mexico's run to the Gold Cup final has been successful. El Tri has won all five of its games and will play in Sunday's final at Soldier Field in Chicago. The objective is almost at hand. That's their success story, but it hasn't been impressive.
Mexico needed extra time, twice, to get to the final. The goals have dried up once El Tri hit the knockout stage. The victories have gone from convincing to nervy, from rousing to lethargic.
In an ideal situation, teams improve as a tournament goes on. A solid start, getting better with each passing game, and strong showings when the competition and stakes increase. Mexico though is simply getting by, doing just enough to get the desired result and little more. The defending and goalkeeping have come through in the knockout rounds, but the team's overall play has left plenty of questions.
Still, there are no style points in soccer. The ultimate goal is to win. Results are what counts, not the manner in which they get them. Bad performances in wins are easy to overlook. Meanwhile, good showings that result in losses lead to coaches getting fired.
None of that is going on here. Mexico has reached the Gold Cup final after failing to get there in the 2017 edition. They're attempting to punctuate its dominance in CONCACAF with another Gold Cup title. A win on Sunday would give El Tri its eighth Gold Cup, two clear of the USA as the all-time leader.
Mexico deserves all the accolades should the team finish with a Gold Cup final victory, impressive or not. At the same time, the team is leaving room for doubt whether that can happen. Looming over every game is the open question. Will Tata Martino be the one to finally get this team to the later rounds of the World Cup?
Reaching the Gold Cup final is an important accomplishment. The tournament is Martino's first with Mexico and he's managed well. He has gotten production out of Raul Jimenez and Andres Guardado without burning either player out. He has let youngsters like Uriel Antuna, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Roberto Alvarado have the spotlight in various moments.
It's the overall results that are the problem. Mexico managed just a 3-2 win over Martinique and needed a controversial penalty in extra time to get past Haiti in the semifinal. The quarterfinal win over Costa Rica was solid. It came against a tough opponent who was prepared to take Mexico out. Following that up with a sluggish showing against Haiti was a letdown.
In the World Cup, there are no rivals like Haiti. Mexico has bowed out to Brazil, the Netherlands, and Argentina in the last three World Cups. Had Mexico's effort against Haiti come against an opponent of the others' caliber, Mexico would not have stood much of a chance.
Mexico had a similar run at the World Cup last summer as the performances went from stirring to worrisome. El Tri started strong by beating Germany and South Korea but was no match for Sweden before bowing out quietly against Brazil in the Round of 16. The performances have gone a similar way in this tournament, but the opponents are nowhere near that caliber.
Now, Mexico had its full arsenal available last summer but this time around El Tri is missing some players who likely would have started key games during this run. Players like Carlos Vela, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, and Hector Herrera have been key players for Mexico for years now and the team has missed them. Part of managing a tournament and getting through to the latter stages is dealing with absences, be they because of injuries, suspensions, or other reasons.
With its full squad available against Haiti and Martinique, it is possible that the showing may have been different. That's irrelevant. For Martino's Mexico, it's what happens on the field with the players available.
Still, this tournament has been a boon for Jimenez. Without other, more proven international scorers available, Jimenez is delivering the goals. The Wolverhampton man has scored five goals in the tournament, with a brace against Cuba and goals in the last three games. Jimenez buried the penalty kick that sent Mexico through to the final, atoning for his lone blemish thus far which was a missed spot kick during the quarterfinal shootout against Costa Rica.
Jimenez is at the prime of his career, succeeding in a top league after having developed into the top striker many thought he would become. Regardless of who else is available to Martino in future games, Jimenez should be the go-to striker for Mexico until at least the next World Cup.
The hope for Mexico would be that a Gold Cup title here would help bring confidence within the squad. The talent has always been there for Mexico, at least over the last couple of decades. Since Mexico started its unsatisfying run of World Cup Round of 16 appearances and ousters in 1994, the talent has steadily improved but the results have stayed the same. Only the names and dates have changed.
Venturing forward with Martino has been positive. Martino has yet to lose a match as the win over Haiti ran his record to a perfect 6-0-0. While the road itself to the final has not been perfect, the result in each game has been. It would be nice for any team to earn style points for wins but getting victories and silverware is what counts.
Whether or not Mexico's lackluster performances can yield a Gold Cup championship is the question. If they end up on the stage lifting the trophy, few will recall how poor Mexico looked at times while getting there.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com