For a region marred by low officiating standards and corruption, Wednesday's debacle at the Georgia Dome put CONCACAF at a new low as Mexico advanced to the 2015 Gold Cup final in extra time with a 2-1 win over Panama.
After yet another porous start, Miguel Herrera's side was handed a stroke of luck in the 25th minute, when Panama striker Luis Tejada was wrongfully sent off for what American referee Mark Geiger viewed as an apparent elbow to the head of Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez.
As we have come to expect from El Tri at the Gold Cup, they underwhelmed with the man advantage. Carlos Vela, who was supposed to light the net on fire with his scoring prowess once Javier Hernandez was declared out for the tournament with a broken collarbone, put together yet another dubious night in the final third. The Real Sociedad man could only muster two shots—both off target—during his 120 minutes on the pitch.
But he wasn't the only Mexico star who played poorly in a must-win match for Herrera's squad, especially after the United States crashed out in the first semi-final of the night.
Hector Herrera entered the competition as one of the top players in the North American region, but he once again failed to deliver for an El Tri side that gets more uninspiring by the match. The Porto midfielder lasted all of 59 minutes before he was lifted in favor of Jesus Manuel Corona.
Corona and half-time substitute Carlos Esquivel provided Mexico with the required spark in the latter stages of the quarter-final win over Costa Rica, but neither made huge contributions to the El Tri attack on Wednesday.
Two minutes before Corona entered and light years before all hell broke loose at the Georgia Dome, Panama took the lead by way of captain Roman Torres. The vocal leader of Panama headed in a goal that at the time seemed to put Hernan Dario Gomez's team into Sunday's final.
With the stage set for a Jamaica versus Panama final and a rivalry clash in the third-place game between the United States and Mexico, El Tri were once again saved by the referee's whistle. This time around, it was Geiger, who had an overall shocking performance, handing Mexico an undeserved lifeline late in the second half.
In the 89th minute, Torres fell to the ground on the right side of the penalty area with the ball flying in his direction. The ball lodged in between Torres' side and left elbow as Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo raced out to cover up. Before Penedo had a chance to end the play, Geiger called for a penalty. Miguel Herrera said in his post-match press conference it was a bad call, per Fox Sports' Kyle McCarthy:
What followed was a deplorable set of actions from the Mexico fans behind the Panama bench. They littered the area around the Panama bench with projectiles from the stands. Players and coaches tried to sort out the situation while Geiger stood around dumbfounded, wondering what was going on around him.
Due to the incompetent nature of Geiger, the melee in front of the benches lasted over 10 minutes before Mexico captain Andres Guardado stepped to the spot to take the penalty in stoppage time. Guardado admitted after the match that he thought about missing the penalty, per CBSSports' Roger Gonzalez:
The fact that Guardado even considered missing the spot kick shows how much displeasure there was with the call. The El Tri captain, who put in one of the better performances of the match for his side, told Fox Sports 2 after the win that he didn't feel like celebrating the equalizer:
In addition to dealing with the poor call on Wednesday night, Mexico were still getting over the criticism of how they reached the final four of the competition. In the 122nd minute of the quarter-final against Costa Rica, Oribe Peralta was wrongly awarded a penalty after falling down in front of the Costa Rica net.
Given the recent allegations against the leaders in CONCACAF and the potential income a one-game play-off between the United States and Mexico for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup berth would produce, it at least sparks the question of whether some sort of corruption has been involved in the competition.
Gomez was rightfully angry after the match, per Steven Goff of the Washington Post:
The one decision Geiger actually got right on Wednesday night should not have happened if he had correctly ruled on the Torres play in the 89th minute. Mexico substitute Javier Orozco collided with a pair of Panama defenders in the box and earned the second penalty of the night in the 103rd minute.
Guardado once again stepped to the spot and slotted in his second goal of the night to clinch Mexico's place in Sunday's final against Jamaica. Credit must be given to the Mexico captain for his poise on the pair of penalties against Penedo, who is one of the better penalty-stoppers in CONCACAF and MLS. Guardado smartly went left with his second penalty after scoring with a shot that went into the right part of the net to equalize the game.
Despite the poise shown by Guardado in a key moment for Mexico, the primary talking point from the semi-final contest was the poor officiating that marred what looked to be a heroic performance by 10-man Panama.
Instead, Gomez and his squad will try to recover from yet another bout of disappointment and line up for the third-place game against the United States. The Yanks knocked Panama out of World Cup qualifying on the final day in 2013—keeping Mexico's 2014 World Cup hopes alive—through two late goals in Panama City.
Jon Arnold noted Gomez's message to fans about the next World Cup:
It is easy to feel sympathetic for Panama, but unfortunately, what's done is done. Mexico are into the Gold Cup final and now have to find a way to play well for 90 minutes against a Jamaica side that will challenge them.
Hopefully by the time Sunday rolls around, we can talk about a great continental final between two electric attacking sides. But for now, the dark shadow of Wednesday's second semi-final will loom over the region.
Joe Tansey is covering the Gold Cup for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.