Mexico advanced to the 2015 Gold Cup semifinal with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in extra time Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Andres Guardado scored from the penalty spot in the 124th minute to secure the victory (via Fox Soccer):
The first 90 minutes were some of the most enjoyable soccer you could see from a 0-0 match.
Once the game reached extra time, penalties were almost a foregone conclusion. Fatigue and cramping became major issues for the players with the hot, muggy conditions in East Rutherford. Also, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera and Costa Rica coach Paulo Wanchope played it a bit safer tactically since any misstep would have catastrophic consequences.
And with extra time mere seconds away, Roy Miller did the unthinkable, fouling Oribe Peralta in the 18-yard box to give Mexico a chance from the penalty spot to win the match. Guardado took the kick and sent Esteban Alvarado the wrong way with a beautiful PK.
The replays showed the referee's decision to whistle Miller for the foul was extremely harsh. American Soccer Now's Brian Sciaretta sympathized with the Costa Ricans, who saw all of their hard work undone in an instant:
MLS Digital's Jason Saghini countered that the call wasn't so cut-and-dried in the moment:
El Tri might have advanced, but the nature of the win will do little to inspire a ton of confidence in a team that has had some major issues at the tournament so far.
For Mexico, Sunday's game meant more than possibly earning a place in the Gold Cup semifinals; they were potentially playing for Herrera's job.
Coaching El Tri rarely offers a ton of job security. As long as the results are going well, everything's OK. Should Mexico start stringing together draws, defeats and/or even underwhelming victories, the manager becomes a figure of opposition.
Herrera is finding that out the hard way. ESPN FC's Tom Marshall drew attention to a report from Mexican newspaper Record, which called into question the faith Herrera's players have in his abilities to lead El Tri. At least publicly, those same players were singing a different tune:
We make mistakes as footballers and human beings and they ask that we accept our errors, so they should do the same!" tweeted (Javier) Hernandez on Saturday.
The Manchester United striker, who may now have a future at the club, also tweeted the hashtag "I lie like Record" (#mientocomorecord) in an earlier tweet. El Tri teammates Guillermo Ochoa, Diego Reyes, Miguel Layun, Yasser Corona, Moises Munoz, Guardado and Oribe Peralta had also used that hashtag in a clear show of support for the under-fire manager.
Even with those comments, you sensed the walls closing in on Herrera, and anything short of advancement Sunday would surely result in his sacking.
Perhaps that notion played on Mexico's minds before the game, because they began brightly against Costa Rica right from the opening whistle. They applied a lot of pressure on their CONCACAF compatriots and showed the kind of attacking verve missing in their first two matches.
Costa Rica started pushing back right around the 12-minute mark, which helped spark a thoroughly entertaining end-to-end first half.
The first real major action of the game was a yellow card on Joel Campbell in the 13th minute for simulation. Campbell went down in the box as he anticipated a tackle from Guardado. Upon further review, the official looked to have made the right decision (via the Gold Cup):
Had the official instead whistled for a penalty and called the foul on Guardado, you're looking at a completely different game.
The pace of the match remained high after that yellow card, but neither team had much success in the final third. On the balance of play, Mexico looked to be the stronger team, and Guardado was inches away from translating that advantage into goals.
His left-footed shot from roughly 25 yards out was parried away by a sprawling Alvarado:
Despite El Tri's positive play in the first half, ESPN FC's Cesar Hernandez was waiting for the other shoe to drop:
The score remained 0-0 at the half, and you had to wonder whether one or both Herrera and Wanchope would opt for more conservative tactics in the second half. As soccer analyst Janusz Michallik noted, somebody was bound to get burned at some point:
Fortunately, at least from a neutral perspective, the second half played out exactly the same as the first. If anything, the pace actually increased as Mexico and Costa Rica grew more desperate to get the first goal of the match.
That desperation turned to frustration for Mexico, who saw chance after chance fail to find the back of the net, whether through a terrible piece of finishing or a bit of heroics from Alvarado.
In the 51st minute, Peralta had a great look at the goal, but his shot caromed off the post. Carlos Esquivel saw his right-footed volley from close range pawed over the crossbar by Alvarado in the 63rd minute. Carlos Vela followed with two horrendous misses in the 69th and 74th minutes.
His first seemed to be a mishit as the ball took a wrong bounce off the MetLife Stadium sod. He had no excuse for the second, though. He received a nice pass from Guardado and had plenty of time to measure his shot before somehow sending it high over the crossbar.
According to Goal's Ives Galarcep, the Mexican journalists in the press box simply embraced the ridiculousness of it all:
Vela's inability to capitalize on either opportunity loomed large as the two countries went into extra time. Seth Vertelney of Goal made a great point about how this could change the narrative regarding Vela's role with the national team:
For so long, his continued absence from El Tri remained a major talking point, and following each great performance he had for Real Sociedad, Mexico supporters envisioned him doing the same for his country. Now, some major questions will likely be asked as to his value to the squad.
At least Vela won't be the scapegoat for an embarrassing defeat.
Mexico will get Panama in the semifinal, with the match scheduled for Wednesday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The victory won't provide complete safety for Herrera, especially since Mexico had to wait until the 124th minute for their first goal. But he at least bought himself a little more time on the sideline.
Carlos Vela, Mexico: C
You have to give Vela credit for constantly getting himself into attacking positions, but his misses in the second half are everything you'll remember about his performance. Maybe it was just a bad night at the office, and maybe the MetLife Stadium turf wasn't the best.
Still, you expect more from Vela, and his anemic finishing nearly cost El Tri a place in the semifinal.
Andres Guardado, Mexico: A
Even before his 124th-minute goal, Guardado was the best player on the pitch for Mexico. He was moving all over and impacting the game with his precision passing and deadly runs at goal. Even when he wasn't in possession of the ball, Costa Rica had to constantly shadow Guardado in their own half, which opened up space for his teammates.
Giancarlo Gonzalez, Costa Rica: A-
Campbell will earn a lot of deserved praise for his performance, but Giancarlo Gonzalez was the man of the match for Costa Rica. He was the anchor at the back who helped repel most of Mexico's attacking moves.