2011 in Review: 5 Best Gold Cup Matches
Posted on December 27, 2011 4:39 pm
This year’s Gold Cup, the
golden goose showpiece event for our region, was the most bizarre tournament I have ever seen. The opening two matchdays featured three blowouts, followed by a scoreless draw; then, the Mexican federation pulled five players for testing positive for Clembuterol, a black eye for Mexico’s meat industry. Later, the US lost a group stage match for the first time, before my own eyes; and Bob Bradley reduced Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to supersubs for the quarterfinal against Jamaica. And what more can be said of Alvaro Saborio’s trip to Rock Bottom: the Costa Rica forward wasted a handful of opportunities in the ticos’ group-stage game against El Salvador, then escorted his country out of the championship with two penalty misses against Honduras.
In spite of all the wackiness, there was plenty of entertainment on display, and in the end I enjoyed this Gold Cup much more than, say, this year’s Copa America. Later this week I will share a couple of thoughts on the summer tournament that most caught my attention (hint: it did not take place on this side of the world); but for now, here is my selection of the five best games from the 2011 Gold Cup.
Mexico 4-1 Costa Rica – Group A, Matchday 3
Ahead of this game, the defending champions of this tournament had already secured their place in the quarterfinal round, and any concerns over the team’s psyche after the Clembuterol scandal had been answered convincingly with a 5-0 romp over Cuba. The aztecas expected a more difficult challenge in their last match of the group, however: while it had been a decade since Costa Rica had managed to get one over on Mexico, the memory of the Aztecazo has inspired the ticos to put up a fight every time these two face each other. Besides the surplus of inspiration for the Central Americans, they could also count on the managerial services of Ricardo LaVolpe, a man with decades of experience with Mexican football and the last coach to have completed a full World Cup cycle with el Tri. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and co. were still expected to win; but given Mexico’s slow starts in their other matches, there remained the possibility that Costa Rica could hang on and snatch a result from this game.
As expected, LaVolpe’s side started the match in an attacking fashion, looking to take the game to Mexico; but whether through an errant pass or an ill-advised dribble, the Costa Ricans failed to seriously threaten Alfredo Talavera’s goal. On the other side of the field, Rafael Marquez headed in a corner kick to open the score; from that moment on, an inspired Mexico controlled possession and created chances at will. At around the 20th minute, a series of passes in front of Costa Rica’s area led to Israel Castro chipping the ball towards Andres Guardado on the left. Without any hesitation, el principito lashed at it with the outside of his left foot, and the powerful shot skimmed off of Keylor Navas’s fingers on the way in. I watched this game hoping that Costa Rica would pull something off, and even I stood up and applauded after witnessing that golazo.
Guardado doubled his personal tally shortly afterwards, stripping Heiner Mora of the ball, dribbling into the penalty area near the goal-line and surprising Navas by beating him at the near post with a low shot. Finally, a Mexican counterattack that started in their own half finished with Pablo Barrera playing a one-two with Carlos Salcido, slipping past Costa Rica’s defensive line and putting away his team’s fourth goal.
Mexico had thoroughly played Costa Rica off the field in only 45 minutes, and at this point the latter started to worry about the serious possibility of falling to third place in Group A and depending on other results for their survival. Luckily for them, Mexico took their foot off the pedal in the second half, Michael Umaña scored a consolation goal for the ticos and they barely overcame El Salvador on goal differential. While Costa Rica breathed a sigh of relief, Mexico reveled in the message they had sent to everyone else in the tournament: even without Chicharito scoring, they had trampled one of the best teams in the region, validating their reputation as the favorites to defend their title.
Jamaica 1-0 Honduras – Group B, Matchday 3
Honduras may have come and gone from the last World Cup finals with little fanfare; but the catrachos did reach the Promised Land, and that alone made them favorites to win Group B. Not that anyone at the Red Bull Arena particularly wanted that position: after Panama tossed out the normal script with their 2-1 victory over the US in Tampa, the canaleros only needed a point against Canada in order to win Group C, meaning that whoever won Group B would most likely face the US in the next round. In spite of that possibility, the tens of thousands of Hondurans in attendance urged their team to chase a positive result.
Up to this point, however, Jamaica had outperformed Honduras in their group: the Reggae Boyz had overcome both Grenada and Guatemala without conceding a goal, hoarding first place to themselves. While fellow Caribbean sides had crashed and burned in the Gold Cup, its champion played without any sense of inferiority against the Copa Centroamericana winners, and just after the half-hour mark, a Ryan Johnson shot from outside the area bounced off the crossbar, off of Noel Valladares’ back and in, giving Jamaica the lead. On the other end, Carlos Costly had injured his rib-cage when he hit the ground reaching for a ball in a corner kick sequence. The go-to Honduran forward had to be subbed out – Honduras only produced one goal in the rest of the tournament in his absence.
In the middle of the second half, Jamaica had an opportunity to double their lead with a penalty kick, but Valladares managed to parry it away and keep the catrachos in the game. With the opportunity to salvage a draw still in sight, the Hondurans spent the rest of the match resorting to the darker arts of the sport, flopping in order to win dangerous free kicks near the penalty area. As is typical of Anglophone football, the Jamaicans reacted with disgust, although they stuck to verbally letting the Hondurans know what they thought of the constant simulation. A fight could have broken out with more injury time, but fortunately the referee called the game just in time for Jamaica to celebrate a third-straight victory. Their Gold Cup ended with a limp performance in the quarterfinals, but Jamaica demonstrated against Honduras the technique and team discipline that make them serious candidates to snatch one of CONCACAF’s spots in the next World Cup.
Mexico 2-1 Guatemala – Quarterfinals
A mismatch was on the cards from the outset: Mexico entered this match after having unleashed an avalanche of goals on all three of their group-stage opponents, while Guatemala (the worst of the Central American teams in this tournament) only managed to show up because Grenada was in their group instead of Canada’s. Talismanic striker Carlos Ruiz had other plans, however, and when Hector Moreno swung and missed on a long ball sent up from the defense, el pescadito pounced on the opportunity, lobbing the loose ball over Talavera and in. Nobody expected Guatemala to be in the lead after just five minutes, but the chapines managed to hold the 1-0 score through the first half, with Giovani dos Santos and the aforementioned Chicharito unable to make the breakthrough.
In the second half, Jose “el Chepo” de la Torre reverted to the same substitution that opened up earlier matches against El Salvador and Cuba, sending de Nigris up top and switching to a two-striker formation. The move paid off relatively quickly: a Moreno header was knocked out by Ricardo Jerez only as far as de Nigris, who scored at the second time of asking. A few minutes later, Pablo Barrera dribbled just outside of Guatemala’s penalty area and crossed the ball low to Chicharito. At this point, I initially thought that the Manchester United forward simply tapped the ball in, as he does so often in England, but the replay showed me why Univision’s commentators were losing their voices over the goal: Chicharito cleverly let the ball slip past his left leg, then directed it goalward with the heel of his right foot. The Guatemalans did take a couple of shots from distance, but they had no real reply for Mexico’s comeback. This game had been closer than expected, but the aztecas passed the test with aplomb, keeping their championship defense alive.
Panama 1-1 El Salvador a.e.t., 5-3 penalties – Quarterfinals
In my opinion, this match rivaled the final for the best atmosphere at a Gold Cup game. The Salvadoran fans in the Washington, DC area followed through on their threat to turn RFK Stadium into another Cuscatlan, filling it with blue-clad supporters. A quick Youtube search of the Salvadoran anthem from that game will let you experience the level of noise that they produced, and their presence weighed heavily over this encounter.
El Salvador had already put their opening-day thumping to Mexico behind them, with a 1-1 draw against Costa Rica followed by a 6-1 hammering of Cuba. Even so, Rodolfo “Fito” Zelaya and co. only made it to the quarterfinals thanks to Panama, whose last-minute equalizer against Canada in the group stage benefited their fellow Central Americans. Nevertheless, they had every intention of winning this latest edition of the burgeoning Central American rivalry, fed by four confrontations between El Salvador and Panama in the last two World Cups (2006 and 2010 qualifying). As for the canaleros, they had already won one away game in this tournament, and Julio Cesar Dely Valdes’s decision to send out a second-string team against Canada allowed his starters to recuperate ahead of this quarterfinal match, their first since 2005 against a team not named the US.
This game begged for controversy, and in two instances the demand was met. In the first half, El Salvador won a soft penalty call, but Jaime Penedo managed to save Zelaya’s kick. “Fito” made no mistake when the referee awarded the cuscatlecos a more straightfowarded penalty in the second half; but as the Salvadorans did everything they could to kill off the game, in the 88th minute Panama’s Luis Tejada managed to head a loose ball toward the goal. Miguel Montes managed to catch the ball, but the assistant referee ruled that it had crossed the line. The video replays (including Univision’s self-promoted “Unavision” technology) did not provide conclusive evidence either way; in any case, in spite of the crowd’s protests, we simply had to take the ref’s word for it.
The match went into overtime, but neither side could put away the couple of chances that they created with the extra half hour. In the ensuing penalty shootout, Dennis “Pitbull” Alas shot low, hard and to the center, right where Panamanian keeper Jaime Penedo could save it. Unfortunately for the defender, everyone else scored, and in the end his error allowed Panama to move on to the semifinals, still uncharted territory for El Salvador.
Mexico 4-2 USA – Final
In the previous decade, most of the clasicos between the two giants of our region have followed one of two scripts: in Mexico, Mexico wins. Outside of Mexico, the aztecas outplay the US but fail to put away their opportunities, the Americans score twice on counterattacks and Rafael Marquez gets himself sent off. Much of the first half went to form, with Mexico assaulting Tim Howard’s goal from the word “go”, only to watch Michael Bradley (off a corner kick) and Donovan (from a counterattack involving Freddy Adu and Dempsey) put the hosts 2-0 ahead. Marquez even left the field…although his injury-related substitution allowed Mexico to continue playing with 11 men.
Barrera snuck behind the US defense, connected on a long ball, shot low and beat Howard to cut the deficit; then, right before halftime, a scramble in the US box allowed an outstretched Guardado to equalize, with Chicharito neatly avoiding touching the ball from an offside position. Just like that, Mexico had brought themselves into the game and never looked back. In the second half, another low shot from Barrera beat Tim Howard at the far post for the game winner; and after a Dempsey shot from outside the area ricocheted off the crossbar, Gio killed off the contest when he received a through ball from Gerardo Torrado, toyed with Howard as the goalie tried to yank the ball away and chipped it in over the fully-extended Eric Lichaj. Bradley fils missed a shot from distance on an open net, but otherwise the US had little chance of overturning the 4-2 score.
In the end, the best team in the tournament scored the best goal of the tournament and won the best game of the tournament. And just for good measure, Mexico also won the Fair Play Award, while Chicharito won every individual award he could conceivably win – although I would not be surprised if CONCACAF considered him for “Goalkeeper of the Tournament” too.