Mexico off to slow start in Gold Cup and struggling to establish chemistry
DENVER, Colo. -- "Mexico is Mexico," said Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore after his team's 0-0 draw against El Tri on Thursday evening in the Gold Cup.
It was meant as a compliment, but the former defender had said ahead of the game that Jamaica felt it knew Mexico's style and weaknesses. It was easy enough to read "Mexico is Mexico" as hinting at Jamaica knowing beforehand how to tame El Tri.
And if the plan was to frustrate Mexico, it worked. Players and coach Pompilio Paez (standing in for Juan Carlos Osorio) talked of Mexico's frustration at dominating the match and possession, but not being able to score. El Tri had 73 percent of the ball and attempted 404 passes compared to Jamaica's 179, which left goalkeeper Moises Munoz slightly bitter about the Reggae Boyz' intentions.
"I sweated more in the warm-up than during the 90 minutes of the game," said 37-year-old Munoz after the game. "There wasn't any danger on our goal because they didn't come to play. They came only to defend with the bus and everything... It is sad to see games like that, but that is our confederation and we have to find ways to play to get round those set-ups."
It's a Catch-22 situation for teams facing Mexico at the Gold Cup.
Perhaps with the exception of the United States and Costa Rica, there is a significant talent deficit even with this Mexico squad not including the majority of the players who will be at the World Cup next summer. Opponents are unlikely to go toe-to-toe with Mexico in the likelihood that El Tri will use the space to demolish them. El Salvador tried in the Group C opener and was overrun.
Instead, opposing teams seek to do what Jamaica did. And Whitmore's team must be praised. The Reggae Boyz defended the flanks well and restricted Mexico to three shots on goal.
This is the kind of game Osorio has shone in as Mexico coach. His record against CONCACAF teams is now 12 wins and four draws. In the 16 games before Osorio took over in late 2015, El Tri won only six, drew nine and lost once -- over 90 minutes.
If there has been a strength of Osorio it has been his flexibility in getting results against CONCACAF sides. His tactical versatility has helped El Tri win for the first time in the United States against the U.S. in World Cup qualifying since 1972, obtain three points in Honduras for the first time in 22 years and pick up its first win in Canada in 23 years.
All of that makes Thursday's game concerning. Jamaica came with a plan, stuck to it and was rewarded, without goalkeeper Andre Blake needing to make a series of outstanding saves and without significant slices of luck.
Mexico simply didn't have enough firepower or creativity to break down Jamaica.
This might have been the first case of Mexico suffering through Osorio not being on the bench. The Colombian was suspended for six games -- which would be the duration of the Gold Cup if Mexico makes the final -- for his protests towards the officials in the third-place playoff game at the Confederations Cup.
TV seemed to show some communication from Osorio to Paez, but the assistant has to make judgement calls based partly on what he thinks and partly on what he thinks Osorio would do. It was certainly perplexing to see the game flowing along quite consistently and Mexico not putting on more attacking full-backs to support the wingers better. Instead, it was debutant defender Cesar Montes who replaced attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro at half-time.
Against Curacao on Sunday in San Antonio, it is likely to be a similar kind of game for Mexico. Munoz described it as the "most important game" because El Tri is desperate to advance in first place from Group C.
For striker Erick "Cubo" Torres -- who often looked slightly isolated on Thursday and left the field with an elbow complaint -- Mexico simply has to show improvement in generating opportunities in the final third.
"(We need) more patience," said the Houston Dynamo player. "We have to move the opponent's defense around quicker, try to destabilize them faster, be more effective ... Try to penetrate as quickly as possible, be more accurate."
It's back to the drawing board for Osorio and the coaching staff. As things stand after two rounds of matches in Group C, Mexico's established regulars aren't feeling too much pressure for their places from the Gold Cup hopefuls.
And after all, that is the real point of this competition for Mexico.
"[It's] an opportunity for them and all of us to show our coach that we want to be in the next World Cup," said Munoz. "That's the main objective that we have in mind. We have to win this cup to get a spot on that roster that is going to be representing Mexico at the next World Cup."
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.