Duenas could be Mexico's Gold Cup gem and five thoughts on El Tri's win

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The Tigres midfielder likely would've been in Russia were it not for a personal issue. Goal looks at his quality and more from the opening victory

Mexico got its Gold Cup off to a successful start with a 3-1 victory over El Salvador. Now, El Tri need only to see off two Caribbean sides — albeit two of that region's best — to get out of the group unscathed and lock in on defending the trophy in the knockout rounds.

Hernandez ignites Mexico attack

Sunday was Elias Hernandez's night as the veteran continued his scoring run and put balls on a platter for his teammates to finish off. Two of them did in the game. While Hernandez was the standout, there were plenty of other things to think about after the tournament opener...


Duenas could be unsung Gold Cup hero


Nelson Bonilla El Salvador Edson Alvarez Jesus Duenas Mexico

Jesus Duenas likely would've been on the plane to Russia were it not for a personal issue that kept him from joining national team camp on time after Tigres' defeat in the Liga MX final. On Sunday, he showed that he'll do everything possible to be on the plane the next time El Tri heads to Russia.

Duenas was a nuisance in the middle for El Salvador, ending the night with a yellow card after one of several physical challenges in the middle. And while his passing percentage wasn't among the team's best, he had couple of plays where he spotted something from the middle and freed up an attacker. The most notable example was when he played a ball into space for Elias Hernandez to run onto. The Leon midfielder crossed for Angel Sepulveda, but the forward's header went amiss.

The play showed just what Duenas can do — recover the ball, play a pass exactly where the winger wants it (either to space or to the player's feet depending on their preference and skills) and follow up on the play. Duenas also can play at right back if needed — something that would've been handy if not an outright game-changer at the Confederations Cup — and had put a shot on target. The 28-year-old isn't a huge star and probably never will be, but he may quietly be Mexico's gem at this tournament.


Center backs continue playing outside


Edson Alvarez Mexico Alexander Larin El Salvador

Despite having a roster that actually contains players who have played at right back and/or left back at the club level, Mexico again elected to start a player who generally profiles as a center back in one of the outside slots. Edson Alvarez, the Club America teenager, had a fine night on the right and opportunities likely will come for Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez in future games. Still, at this point it's a pattern worth investigating as to why this happens so often.

Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio went to Russia for the Confederations Cup ready to give Carlos Salcedo a steady diet of right-back minutes with Diego Reyes also in the mix, a plan that went awry when both were injured. Neither of those players plays right back at the club level. He also showed a proclivity for putting Oswaldo Alanis at left back, a position where the Chivas defender disappointed against both the United States in World Cup qualification and Germany in the Confederations Cup semifinals.

Alvarez at least gives a bit more going forward than Salcedo or Alanis, or at least he did against an El Salvador team already weak on the wings that was even more open for him to come forward after Mexico's wingers found sustained success. But Mexico has been better when Miguel Layun has been able to play the position where he's comfortable. Hopefully Rodriguez gets an opportunity and excels in a role he knows.


Gallardo continuing to switch roles


Jesus Gallardo Mexico

Although it's nice to see players used where they're comfortable playing with their club teams, the nature of international soccer is such that sometimes a national team manager can use a player in a different spot and make him comfortable there as well. That might not be the case at right back, but at left back it seems to be doing well. Pumas' Jesus Gallardo played most of the second half at left back and showed that he's increasingly competent in that role.

Gallardo 7.5, Hernandez 9: Goal's Mexico player ratings

With that said, his first half when he was playing as a winger — both on the left side as he generally does for his club and inverted on the right — Gallardo also looked good. He was hailed for his performance by interim coach Luis Pompilio Paez and helped Mexico dominate the wings in the victory. While Mexico doesn't have much depth at left back, you can understand why the coaching staff would be excited at the prospect of another player being able to play there instead of at the crowded winger position. The solid night from Gallardo shows that they should keep an open mind about the 22-year-old rather than slotting him somewhere and leaving him there. Of course, that's not a huge concern with the way the Mexico staff works. 


New players, same start


El Salvador

This is a totally different Mexico team from the one that went behind against the United States in a World Cup qualifier in June and then preceded to concede first in each Confedertaions Cup game. Yet, the start looked familiar. While El Tri opened the scoring thanks to Hedgardo Marin's header, El Salvador was back level after just a few minutes thanks to Nelson Bonilla's swift finish. And just before Elias Hernandez's volley had Mexico back in the lead, there was a chance for El Salvador to get into the lead with a chip over Jesus Corona that ultimately went over the crossbar. 

It was deserved. While Mexico eventually put a vicegrip on the game and dominated the second half, El Salvador came out energetic and excited for its tournament opener. La Selecta couldn't keep that pace up for 30 minutes, much less the full 90, but it meant that once again Mexico was second-best in the opening portion of the contest. That's something that has become a concerning pattern, one Osorio and Pompilio Paez will be eager to keep from developing. 


Where will rotations come?


Luis Pompilio Paez Mexico

Here's a fun party game (if you throw very specific parties with a very specific group of people made up only of Mexico fans and CONCACAF nerds): Try to figure out which players will get rotated out of Mexico's lineups between games in a tournament. Sometimes the players who have just performed best are moved to the bench (see Dos Santos, Jonathan, and Ochoa, Guillermo, after the Confederations Cup draw with Portugal), while other times they're kept in.

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Gold Cup fixtures and results

Sometimes there's a trap to fall in thinking the rotations are random. Osorio and his staff — in this case fill-in manager Luis Pompilio Paez chief among the assistants — analyze the opponents, find their strength and weaknesses, and put out the team they feel will perform best against that team. It doesn't always go right, but sometimes it does. Last year, playing Jamaica in the Copa America Centenario, Mexico went with three at the back and put Rafa Marquez in front of the center backs with speed needed to stop some of the Reggae Boyz quick forwards. Duenas played just in front of Marquez, trying to stop Jamaica from recovering and recycling quickly.

Could we see a repeat with Edson Alvarez playing Marquez's role and a back three of Hugo Ayala, Cesar Montes and Hedgardo Marin? We could. We also could see a back four with Luis Rodriguez on the right and Jesus Gallardo on the left, giving Luis Reyes a rest and putting plenty of speed out wide. We never know exactly what's going to happen, but we can always debate and enjoy the party.

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