Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre unbuttoned his shirt down to his sternum, his pale chest glistening in the San Pedro Sula heat. His opposite, Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suárez, had already undergone a sartorial change, tossing a soaked shirt at halftime.
De la Torre, however, was sweating more than just the 107 degree heat.
Up two goals with 15 minutes remaining, Mexico wilted, conceding twice to scrape a 2-2 draw and begin the Hexagonal with two points from two games. Next on the schedule: the United States.
For the first time since de la Torre took over El Tri in early 2010, Mexico looks uncomfortable.
Thus far, the worst criticism that stuck to Chepo involved his preoccupation with finding another tactical option -- El Tri struggling whenever deployed with two strikers -- and the ongoing terse relationship with Carlos Vela. Otherwise, he has glided through what is often an unforgiving job.
Mexico won the 2011 Gold Cup under de la Torre, which helped reestablish El Tri as the preeminent force in CONCACAF following a decade of American dominance. More recently, Mexico eased through the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying without dropping a point and outscoring opponents 15-2. In between, Mexico won the 2012 Olympics (with Luis Tena as head coach).
But this Hexagonal has snared Mexico in its unpredictability. In the opening match, against Jamaica, Azteca turned on its home team, raining down boos and jeers as the Reggae Boyz slipped out of Mexico City with a 0-0 draw. Mexico hadn't dropped points in Estadio Azteca for 15 years, posting a perfect 25 games there in competitive matches. Of its 75 home World Cup qualifiers, El Tri had only failed to win seven.
So, nearly two months later, Mexico traveled to Honduras, where it has not won in two decades, timidly. Chepo dismissed with his tactical experiments and reinstated the lineup that carried his team through the semifinal round without a fuss. Within an hour, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez clinched two opportunistic goals from crosses.
The kings of CONCACAF were back.
Until, of course, the regional royals had to deal with CONCACAF itself. Chicharito and Giovani Dos Santos exited the match with cramps. The heat of the afternoon kickoff bore down fiercely. The finish line, once so clear and near, moved hazily past the horizon.
Carlo Costly found space on a corner in the 77th minute to pull one back. Within a matter of seconds he scampered back into the box, this time for Mexico captain Francisco Javier 'Maza' Rodriguez to hip-check him. Penalty. Equalizer. Capitulation.
To further complicate matters, Maza picked up a booking in the waning minutes, ruling him out of the match against the United States. (Jorge Torres Nilo is also suspended.)
Back in February, upon leaving the field against Jamaica, Rodriguez held up his middle finger to cameras. He cited the
"yellow press" for stirring up controversy, claiming he injured his finger. In Honduras on Friday, Mexico federation president Justino Compean clearly flipped off Los Catrachos fans twice from inside his car prior to the match. He, too, clung to the injury-and-misunderstanding excuse despite video evidence.
No excuses, especially ones as flimsy as Maza's and Compean's, will spare Chepo should Mexico drop points on Tuesday.
In all likelihood, El Tri will win by several clear goals and go on to win the Gold Cup this summer. But that doesn't change the fact that, right now, de la Torre has lost some of his glisten of suave control.
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