PASADENA, Calif. — Maybe the Mexican national team fans in the greater Los Angeles area knew what was coming. The Rose Bowl normally sells out when El Tri come to town, but the stadium was barely half full as Mexico took on Jamaica in Sunday's Gold Cup semifinal.
What the Mexico fans that showed up saw was a young side that wasn't quite ready for prime time. While El Tri controlled the action against Jamaica, they never really looked like a team with the killer instinct to finish the game off. Juan Carlos Osorio brought this young squad to the Gold Cup for an education, and Jamaica wound up providing a test the Mexicans shouldn't have failed.
"The best way I could put it is like the biblical story David slew Goliath," Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said after Sunday's emotional 1-0 victory. "That's the best way to put it. It's overwhelming, words can't explain. I think the guys were hungry this afternoon."
The David and Goliath comparison flattered this Mexican team, a squad playing without all of its top players after they took part in the Confederations Cup. This was an experimental roster with several promising talents, many of whom are seen as future stars of the Mexican national team setup.
Unfortunately, on Sunday, none of those players stepped up to take control of the game. Not in the same way goalkeeper Andre Blake did for Jamaica, or even the way Kemar Lawrence did when he stepped up and struck a perfect free-kick winner in the 88th minute. As much as Lawrence's goal could be seen as the stone that ultimately felled the CONCACAF Goliath, it was Blake who stifled Mexico for the second time in this tournament.
"They all fell to him. Every shot fell into his hands," a bewildered Erick Gutierrez said after Sunday's loss. "We also have to be conscious that we have be more decisive because that’s how these games are."
Jamaica's win wasn't just about Lawrence's goals or even just about Blake's stunning saves. The Reggae Boyz were organized defensively, and looked like the more poised of the two teams, which really shouldn't have been a surprise considering the fact Jamaica's lineup came in with much more experience than Mexico's. Perhaps the fact that these teams met in the group stage — in a match that finished 0-0 — helped Jamaica see this Mexico team was vulnerable, and not the same dangerous squad it can be when fully loaded.
Mexico assistant manager Luis Pompilio Paez — who coached the team in matches in place of the suspended Juan Carlos Osorio — spent nearly 30 minutes defending both his team's performance and the continued work being done by Osorio and his technical staff. But he also found time to point out the fact Mexico was down to its fifth-choice target forward, a position vital to the system El Tri try to play.
Javier Hernandez, Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta all featured in the Confederations Cup, and Alan Pulido — the player expected to lead this El Tri team at the Gold Cup — suffered an injury before the tournament. That left the goal-scoring duties to Houston Dynamo forward Erick "Cubo" Torres and Angel Sepulveda, who failed to capitalize on the chances Mexico created on Sunday.
To blame only Mexico's ineffective strikers would be letting plenty of others off the hook, from the highly-regarded Orbelin Pineda to Elias Hernandez and Rodolfo Pizarro. The game needed a Mexican player to deliver something special, but nobody did.
The scenario was similar to the one faced by the U.S. national team just a day earlier against Costa Rica in the other Gold Cup semifinal. The Americans spent a half controlling the action, but failed to generate dangerous chances. The big difference is Bruce Arena had Clint Dempsey to bring in and deliver some magic.
Could Oribe Peralta or Jurgen Damm have delivered in the same way Dempsey did if they had been available? It's entirely possible, but we will never know. If Osorio should regret anything, it's not setting aside one more top-end attacking option for the Gold Cup. Sure, he couldn't have expected Pulido to be injured, but he should have realized just how much Mexico was depending on Pulido and bought himself some insurance.
Ultimately, Osorio saw this Gold Cup as a chance to test out Mexico's next generation of talent, and realistically speaking, that group didn't show itself to be ready for the next level quite yet. In a way, Jamaica might have done Mexico a favor by winning on Sunday because it's very difficult to picture this Mexico team having beaten the U.S. in a Gold Cup final. Losing to Jamaica is rightly seen as a failure, but losing — and potentially losing badly — to the archrival Americans might have been enough to push Osorio out the door.
Mexico fans still want Osorio gone, but the tone of the players was one of support for their beleaguered coach, who scurried out of the Rose Bowl under a sea of jeers from angry fans.
"Definitely. I think it would be negative and counterproductive to get rid of the manager," veteran Mexican goalkeeper Moises Munoz said. "The responsibility is of all of us, not just the manager. The most prudent thing to do for continuity's sake would be to continue the process (with Osorio) until the World Cup, and we’re very close to achieving that goal."
The focus for Mexico will turn quickly to World Cup qualifying, but El Tri shouldn't soon ignore the lesson this young group was taught by Jamaica on Sunday. It is a moment Jamaica will never forget, and one El Tri shouldn't either.