Pencils down, books away. It's pop quiz time. Here is the one and only question. Who leads Mexico in scoring in the CONCACAF WCQ semi-final round?
Gio? Good guess, but he has only notched one. Besides, he is injured, nursing a muscle tear on the beaches of Mallorca.
Chicharito? No. He has yet to score in this round, despite starting all three games.
Pablo Barrera? Really?
For those of you who guessed Jesús Zavala, and Carlos Salcido - gold stars all around. Mexico's defensive midfielders have each scored 2 goals in three games, and they each scored off corner kicks in Costa Rica's new Chinese palace to take the full three points. After 3 match-days, Mexico has their full complement of points and if they collect another win over Costa Rica at the Azteca, it will qualify them for next years Hex with 2 games to spare.
Mexico also had 9 points in 2008 semi-final series after 3 games, but all those games were at home (thanks to a home and home swap with Jamaica due to a hurricane). Mexico would lose 2 of 3 away games, and a Matias Vuoso goal against Canadian College kids proved to be the difference between advancing, and a humiliating exit.
I have a feeling that will not be happening this time around. It's not just because two of those games are at home, starting with Costa Rica tomorrow, though, it's because of the way Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre has managed the qualifiers so far. In one word: impeccably - especially on the road.
At the always difficult Cuscatlán, Mexico withstood the early onslaught and then took the air out of the ball and out of the stadium. With El Salvador's defense playing a very high off-side trap, he instructed his DM's to break the trap, which is how Jesús Zavala got his first goal.
The next three goals Mexico would score were off set pieces, which is in the first line of the first paragraph on the first page of the "how to win away qualifiers" handbook. When you only have a handful of practices to get ready for such big games, it makes sense to practice the plays you know you are going to get as much as possible.
Friday night in San José, Mexico once again started the game with a defensive posture one would expect playing in an away qualifier. The weird thing was that Costa Rica did the same thing. At home. Mexico gleefully took possession without taking any unnecessary risks. They rarely, if ever, got caught out-numbered in a counter, their defensive pressure easliy jarred the ball away freom the Ticos, and were justly rewarded for their efforts when the fore-mentioned Zavala and Salcido struck off corner kicks. Each were won by Oribe Peralta's and Javier Hernández' hustle on less than 50-50 balls, so despite not showing up on the score-sheet, they had a part to play in both goals. These qualifiers have been get the result first, worry about how you played last. Isn't that what they should be about, anyway? It hasn't been pretty, but it has been methodical, calculated, and extremely effective - the 9 points are a testament to that.
The 2-0 home loss would have been a devastating setback for the Ticos, were it not for the even more devastating 2-2 draw El Salvador managed at home with the Guyana, the group doormats. Regardless, it has to be unsettling for Tico fans that their once fearsome home-field advantage they enjoyed at Saprissa has been usurped with a more sterile, subdued environment at their new Estadio Nacional. Track Ovals will do that, especially with a medium-sized capacity. After two games, Costa Rica has dropped 5 points at home. The El Salvador draw against Guyana means that even with a loss at Mexico, coupled with a win by the Cuscatlecos in Guyana, a ticket to the hex is well within reach for Costa Rica. Their rematch with El Salvador will in all likelihood decide who joins Mexico in the Hex.
If Mexico wins on Tuesday, then Chepo will have the luxury to decide how he wants to approach the October slate. Will he look to develop more depth? Or would he rather let his players continue to develop a better understanding with each other?
Chepo would be the first to tell you, though, that he won't even begin to think about anything like that until around 22:00. And that is only if he gets the win. And if he does, there are 11 other coaches in CONCACAF who would love to have his dilemma.