Six goals scored, one overmatched opponent beaten and one victory down in the quest to reclaim the CONCACAF Gold Cup crown. Mexico dominated Cuba 6-0 on Thursday night at Chicago's Soldier Field in both teams' tournament opener, but while the result was a positive step after a poor recent run of results, the conclusions were minimal for El Tri and coach Miguel Herrera.
Simply put, Piojo and his side will face stiffer challenges in the Gold Cup, starting with the next game. On Sunday, Mexico will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to play a Guatemala team desperate for points after losing to Trinidad and Tobago in their opener. Three days later, El Tri will trek back across the United States to play Trinidad in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a match that could determine who wins Group C.
Both of those teams will offer more of a threat than Cuba, who traveled to the U.S. without seven players—including one defector—and their head coach, as reported by the MLS website. The islanders were in disarray, and Mexico took full advantage, scoring six goals and taking 44 shots, per ESPN.
"This tournament's very even," Herrera said, according to the Daily Mail. "I mean, we had a weak opponent today, but the U.S. national team won well, Jamaica had a good game, Trinidad and Tobago had a good game. All these are good teams."
So what can we learn from this opening performance? If anything, Mexico should have scored even more goals than six, but Herrera will be pleased with how his two forwards, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela, were able to coexist on the pitch. Peralta netted a hat-trick, while Vela—following a series of disputes with the national federation—scored a goal in his first competitive international match since the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
That was good news for El Tri in the absence of injured forward Javier Hernandez. More good news came in the form of Giovani dos Santos, who looked lively after entering the match as a second-half substitute for his brother Jonathan, scoring a nice goal and having another ruled out for offside.
At the back, by contrast, there wasn't as much to learn. Herrera deployed his team in a 4-4-2 formation, a change brought about by the recent injury to center-back Hector Moreno. The four-man back line, anchored by center-backs Diego Reyes and Francisco Javier Rodriguez, obviously did not concede a goal, but neither were they really tested. On the other hand, full-backs Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar did well to involve themselves in the attack, creating danger repeatedly down the flanks.
Writing for ESPN FC, Tom Marshall noted that the switch from a 5-3-2 to 4-4-2 should make for more open games later in the tournament:
Obviously, Cuba offered little threat, but there is no sense in Mexico playing the 4-4-2 with two banks of four to try to keep things tight. Rather, the system offers El Tri more options down the wings than the 5-3-2, with right midfielder Hector Herrera and left mid Andres Guardado cutting inside at times, leaving full-backs Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun space to overlap.
It will be risky against better and more threatening teams, but it allows Mexico to have more of its best players on the field.
The formation and the approach worked well Thursday night, albeit against a clearly outmatched opponent. If not for some errant finishing in the first half, Mexico could have scored 10 or more goals on the night, but that will hardly matter moving forward.
After flopping at the Copa America—admittedly with an almost entirely different squad of players—El Tri found in Cuba just the opponent they needed at just the right moment. Against the outclassed islanders, Mexico scored nearly at will and erased many of the frustrations from a recent seven-match winless run.
Greater challenges await, as Piojo and his team must know. But Thursday's win represented a good first step in the right direction—toward reclaiming the Gold Cup title.