In its first match at the Rose Bowl since its 0-0 tie with Wales in its U.S.
send-off match in May 2018, Mexico was its usual self, demolishing Cuba, 7-0, in the Group A opener. In a sterner test against Canada, Mexico still dominated with 69 percent possession and created
chances galore, running out 3-1 winner for its sixth win in a row since coach Tata Martino took over.
Mexico has been most impressive on the offensive end, scoring at least three goals for every game that Martino has been in charge, including wins against Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela, which are all unbeaten at the Copa America taking place in Brazil.
Tata's El Tri:
March 22: Chile 3-1
March 26: Paraguay 4-2
June 5: Venezuela 3-1
June 9: Ecuador 3-2
June 15: Cuba 7-0
June 19: Canada 3-1
Though he’s only been in charge since January, Martino has his fingerprints all over this Mexico side. His Barcelona, Argentina, and Atlanta United teams all depended on pressing high, passing quickly and moving constantly off-the-ball. Mexico is no different.
The high-octane approach that depends on choreographed presses from the front five completely overwhelmed Cuba. Canada’s more skillful players found their way out of the press on some occasions, but Edson Alvarez, the converted defensive midfielder who missed the Cuba match due to injury, shadowed the space behind the high press with vigilance.
What separated Mexico from Canada and Cuba the most was the former’s consistency of first and second touches. Mexico’s right flank of right back Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez, center midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos and winger Uriel Antuna passed deftly with one and two touches to each other, opening up Canada’s five-man backline almost at will in the opening 20 minutes.
In the sequence to Mexico’s first goal in Denver, Rodriguez rifled the ball into Dos Santos from the by-line, who returned the ball with one touch to Rodriguez, who was racing to the corner flag. Antuna showed where Rodriguez just had been, received the ball from “Chaka” and whipped in a dangerous cross. Opposite winger Roberto Alvarado was in the box to poach the finish. Mexico is the most talented team at this Gold Cup by a mile.
It’s the kind of possession-based soccer that Mexican fans expect at the Gold Cup, a tournament Martino doesn’t even want to be in.
“We insist that what is good for us is to leave the comfort zone of the United States ... if it were me making the decisions for sure we would be in the Copa America,” Martino said in a press conference last week.
Comfort zone indeed. Mexico’s match against Cuba in Los Angeles drew 65,527, almost all Mexico fans, while its match against Canada in Denver drew 52,874. Sounds of “Ole!” when Mexico was five passes into a sequence were impossible to ignore. And because of the lucrative business deals it can make with SUM, Mexico will stay in the Gold Cup for the foreseeable future.
New blood. What is most surprising about this Mexico side is its ability to perform without five players who started in its round of 16 loss to Brazil in the 2018 World Cup, including its entire front line. None of it may matter, though. Unlike a USA side that struggled to keep the ball in its final Gold Cup tune-up match against Venezuela, Martino’s newcomers have adapted to Martino’s system to tremendous effect.
One of El Tri’s newest players is Antuna, the 21-year-old LA Galaxy winger who recorded a hat trick and an assist against Cuba. Antuna was a last-minute add-on to the roster after Club America defender Jorge Sanchez was ruled out due to injury. Antuna may have scored his first professional goal just over a month ago, but he looked comfortable at the international level against Cuba and Canada. It was his cross that led to Mexico’s first goal.
Playing opposite Antuna is the 20-year-old Alvarado. The dynamic attacking midfielder and winger is touted as one of the best attackers in Liga MX despite his age — the young sensation helping lead Cruz Azul to the Copa MX title and second in Liga MX in the 2018 Apertura. In 2013, Alvarado made his professional debut at 15 years and 21 days for his hometown club, Celaya, in the Mexican second division. His hat trick of assists for Cruz Azul in a 3-0 win against Leon in August 2018 earned his first senior national team call-up.
Unlike Antuna who favors to stay inside and crash the box, Alvarado plays a bit deeper, beating players with his excellent footwork and setting up his teammates with superb vision. But he knows when to crowd the box too, demonstrated by his goal against Canada. His pace forces defenders to sag off of him, giving him space to find teammates.
Gold Cup or bust. For a fanbase and press whose demands verge on the absurd, anything but a Gold Cup title — with possession-based, aesthetically pleasing soccer — would be considered a failure by both parties.
After the Cuba match, Andres Guardado, the captain of the team, told listeners in the mixed zone: “No vinimos a ganarle a Cuba, sino a ganar la Copa Oro.” Or in English: “we didn’t come to beat Cuba, but to win the Gold Cup.” The team’s performance against Canada certainly backed up his claims.
Martino hasn’t had much luck on the international stage -- he lost back-to-back Copa Americas on penalty kicks when he coached Argentina. But with how his team is playing right now, him and Mexico won’t need much luck to bring home its record seventh Gold Cup title.