DENVER — For the third consecutive Gold Cup, Mexico has failed to make it out of the group stage with a perfect record intact.
The group is still there for El Tri to win, and while Thursday's scoreless draw against Jamaica was hardly exciting or inspiring, the 2015 draw with Guatemala comes to mind. Mexico came out flat in the next game against Trinidad and Tobago as well but still got out of the group and ended up winning the trophy.
With no reason to panic but several opportunities for improvement, Mexico will likely look very different Sunday against Curacao. Before we turn our attention to that match, though, let's look back at five things from the draw:
Cubo must do more
Mexico forward Erick "Cubo" Torres hadn't represented the senior side since April 2015 but was given a start in the game against Jamaica. His presence in the box as a center forward was going to be key for Mexico against Jamaica's big, strong defenders. Torres' best chance of the game came back off the post but the Houston Dynamo forward was otherwise mostly quiet as the Reggae Boyz denied him service and sat back in numbers to keep him and Mexico's other attackers from breaking free.
While the 24-year-old was pleased to get in, he also knows he needs to show more than he did Thursday to keep getting minutes.
"I’m happy that I was able to participate. I tried to find the goal, tried to create danger in their area," Torres said after the match. "I wasn’t able to finish a goal, but it’s important that we created chances, played well, pushed the whole game. Now we look to the game against Curacao."
Torres fell awkwardly on his hand in the first half but said he could bounce back from the injury with a bit of rest and treatment and hopes to be included in that game. There's a decent chance, though, that he'll be rotated out. The attack had very little creativity, which doesn't fall on Torres. But he was kept quiet by MLS veteran Jermaine Taylor and USL center back Damion Lowe. Those are the types of defenders who he's been able to get the better of en route to being the second-leading scorer in MLS.
"We knew Erick. He had a lot of desire to get into the national team. We knew we could make six changes after the group stage and Erick was in a good competitive rhythm," Mexico assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez said after the game. "We didn't put him into the last game because he'd only had two training sessions and we wanted to give him the best situation. Now he understand the style of play with his teammates a lot better.
"It's not easy to play as a No. 9, especially with such a set team, however he had a chance and hit the post," continued the Colombian, who is Mexico's in-game coach with Juan Carlos Osorio suspended. "It was really tough to find because they closed off spaces really well and we had to play on the wing."
Despite his late addition to the roster, Torres said his adaptation to the squad is coming along well.
"I feel really good. I think I know more than half of the group," he said. "They’ve brought me in well, treated me well. I’m happy on this side. They’re great teammates and we have a really good team. I feel good on the field, comfortable."
With the rotation scheme, more chances will arrive even if he doesn't get in against Curacao. Torres must make the most of them.
Four center back look an ugly one
Though Juan Carlos Osorio isn't allowed to be in contact with his team or coaching staff during the game, his fingerprints again were visible on the team. Cesar Montes came on at the half, pushing Chivas center back Hedgardo Marin to left back. Combined with Edson Alvarez playing at right back once again, it meant that four players who profile as center backs made up the entire back line. It's a curious propensity that Osorio has shown. Respected French journalist Tomas Goubin, who covers Latin American soccer, tweeted the four center back alignment is "an Osorio specialty that never works."
That's spot on and was in even more stark with Jamaica showing just what two trained fullbacks can do. Kemar "Taxi" Lawrence and Alvas Powell hardly made their usual runs forward that they do when playing in MLS but they denied Mexico service even as El Tri looked to find opportunities on the wing to put in balls for Cubo Torres and, later, Martin Barragan.
This is hardly the first time Mexico has struggled to get anything offensively from their fullbacks. Oswaldo Alanis has floundered when placed at left back, while Carlos Saledo did little for the attack in his stints at right back.
Montes handed quiet debut
See that picture above where you can kind of make out Cesar Montes going up for a header against Jamaica forward Darren Mattocks? That's pretty much the extent of the work the center back had to do in his Mexico debut.
Coming on after 45 minutes to make his much-awaited Mexico senior debut, the 20-year-old Monterrey mostly was a spectator, though he did get to move the ball from one side to the other at times as El Tri tried to launch attacks from the back against a stubborn Jamaica team.
"On the personal side, I feel really happy. It was an unforgettable night for me. I’m thankful to the coach for giving me the opportunity," he said after the game. Pompilio Paez "congratulated me for my debut, and I’m really thankful to them for giving me the chance and I was able to take advantage of it."
Montes was one of Liga MX's best center backs - he's particularly good in the air and had Mexico been able to draw some fouls in dangerous areas would've been a threat to head in a winner - and his continued exclusion from national team lineups has been a puzzling one. He has everything Osorio looks for in a center back. He's tall, reads play well and is confident with the ball at his feet. His Mexico career is now underway, and while it wasn't exactly a stiff test, we may be seeing more of Montes in the near future.
"Cesar Montes is a really young player who today had 45 minutes with the national team and he did what he needed to do," Pompilio Paez said after the game. "He played well in defense, when he was able to get into the attacking third, he did it."
Chivas base struggling to adapt
The base of this Mexico squad was supposed to be made up from reigning Liga MX champion Chivas, and even with Alan Pulido and Angel Zaldivar departing because of injuries, there's still a Guadalajara flavor to the team. Hedgardo Marin has been quality in defense, and was named Man of the Match against Jamaica by the secret formula used to name official Men of the Match at competitions. But Rodolfo Pizarro and Orbelin Pineda have struggled to adapt to the national team.
It's not entirely their fault. Pizarro was poor in Thursday's first half but has been asked to play an outside position with which he's not familiar. Similarly, Pineda has been moved around to places where he doesn't play with Matias Almeyda's men to a relatively low degree of success.
Osorio may want to consider bending more to his players' strengths when things aren't going well. Pompilio Paez said after the game that he tried various tactical adjustments, but while things like switching the side the wingers are currently attacking can spur change (and even has for this Mexico group through Elias Hernandez), sometimes bigger changes are needed. This coaching staff hasn't been afraid to shake things up in the past, so why the Chivas pair isn't being let loose is strange. That boost of confidence could help them adapt to the roles the staff hopes they'll eventually fill.
Script repeat unlikely against Curacao
Mexico definitely will see a similar strategy to the one Jamaica employed to keep El Tri from finding the back of the net, but that might not be Curacao's style of play Sunday when the teams meet in the final group game Saturday in San Antonio.
That didn't stop El Tri from being concerned about the possibility of another strong bunker from a Caribbean team in the group stage of the tournament.
"What happened today, Curacao might try to emulate," goalkeeper Moises Munoz said. "We’ve got to work in the days before then to try and find ways to open up these defense that Curacao could play. We definitely have to get a goal because we want to advance as the first-place team."
But Curacao coach Remko Bicentini hinted that he might try to chase a goal against El Tri with his team coming off two losses but still holding out hope of qualifying as one of the best-placed third-place teams. After conceding two goals in each of the first two group games, it's likely the Caribbean champion's best chance to succeed with the team unlikely to be able to keep El Tri from finding the back of the net, even with their own attacking issues.