Saturday night against Guatemala, Mexico earned their fourth Gold Cup win in a row. The victory certainly didn't come easy, though. For the third time in four games, Mexico put together a relatively lackluster first half performance before storming back to earn the win after the break.
Should El Tri fans be concerned about the team's increasing propensity to start games off slow? (Cue thousands of U.S. fans screaming, "Slow start? I'll show you a slow start.") And while it may be splitting hairs to find fault in a team that has won four games by a combined 16-2 margin, the reality is that continued first half struggles may end up causing problems down the road.
Two weeks ago in the Gold Cup opener, Mexico looked far from dominant in the first half. Facing El Salvador, El Tri looked downright pedestrian as the two sides played to a scoreless draw after the first 45 minutes. Everything finally seemed to click for Mexico, though, after the break. Immediately after taking a 1-0 lead, manager Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre made an offensive minded substitution, putting in striker Aldo de Nigris for defensive midfielder Israel Castro. The move paid off, as De Nigris scored two minutes after coming on for the two-goal advantage. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez would add three more scores for the impressive 5-0 final margin.
It was a similar story in Mexico's second match. Playing against a far inferior Cuba side, Mexico could only manage a 1-0 halftime lead. Yet the second half played out as almost an exact carbon copy of the El Salvador match. Immediately after taking a 2-0 lead, De Nigris came on as a sub. Less than one minute later, De Nigris scored to give El Tri a 3-0 advantage and the rout was on. Mexico would eventually beat Cuba by an identical 5-0 scoreline.
After two Gold Cup matches, Mexico had managed one first half goal and an incredible nine goals after the break. Calling El Tri a second half team almost seemed like an understatement.
It was the Costa Rica match that momentarily blew that characterization to pieces. In their third Gold Cup group play match, Mexico dominated the Ticos in the first half for a 4-0 lead at the break. It was a virtuoso team performance from the opening whistle, and suddenly Mexico no longer looked like a team that stumbled coming out of the blocks.
Just when it looked like Mexico had solved their early-game issues, the problem again reared its head in Saturday’s quarterfinal match against Guatemala. This time things were even worse, as for the first time all tournament Mexico took a scoring deficit into the break. The Guatemala lead was thanks to Carlos Ruiz, who just five minutes into the match took advantage of a defensive error by Hector Moreno and used an acrobatic finish to give his team the early 1-0 advantage. Mexico couldn't find the answer, and the second half began with El Tri down 0-1 on the scoreboard.
Who did Chepo call on? Again it was Aldo De Nigris. Coming on as a halftime sub for Israel Castro, De Nigris worked his usual instant scoring magic. Just three minutes after taking the field, De Nigris found the back of the net to even the scoreline at 1-1. This opened the door for Chicharito, who scored the winner just over 15 minutes later with a clever flick finish off a pass from Pablo Barrera. Just like in the first two matches, Mexico again earned the win despite a slow start. And just like their previous matches, Mexico dominated the scoresheet -- with huge advantages in time of possession and shots on goal. It's almost like Mexico knows that they are the better team, and feel confident that they can hit that next gear at any time.
Mexico's best game by far in the Gold Cup was against Costa Rica, also the best of their four opponents. That's probably not a coincidence. Mexico may be looking at some of these other teams (the Guatemalas and Cubas of the world) as guaranteed wins, and coming out with less than optimal mental focus. Now that we’ve reached the final stages of the Gold Cup that should no longer be a problem. Mexico, or any team, should have no trouble finding their focus for the semifinal and final of a major tournament. We'll certainly see if the early game performance improves on Wednesday against Honduras.
Following the win over Guatemala, De la Torre commented that "The team is strong. To be champion we must overcome adversity." And while Mexico has easily overcome their slow starts this tournament, they are a talented enough team where they shouldn't be forced to play from behind against lesser opponents. The slow starts haven't proved to be a problem so far, but against a slightly better quality opponent than they've faced so far -- ie the United States -- a slow start could spell doom. Bringing two strikers on in the second half has worked masterfully up to this point, but a better team will be able to exploit Mexico on the other end. Leaving just one defensive midfielder -- Gerardo Torrado -- on the field, opens up space in the middle for the opposing offense.
Guatemala certainly didn’t have the quality to hold a second half lead against Mexico, but the United States do. If the first half performances don’t improve for Mexico going forward, El Tri may just see their second half magic finally run out.