There was nothing flashy about Mexico's 1-0 win over Panama on Wednesday night. There were no amazing plays, no individual displays of talent and not too much drama in the victory.
But it was progress nonetheless, and the way the Gold Cup has gone for El Tricolor thus far, a 1-0 victory is perhaps a best-case scenario.
After concluding the group stage with two wins and a loss, Mexico must now try and shake off the haze against Costa Rica in Sunday's quarterfinal matchup. While the Ticos will surely present an obstacle, Mexico must overcome its biggest challenge: El Tri must start to play like El Tri.
In many ways, this tournament should be a wake-up call for Mexico. The 2-1 loss and overall horrid play against Honduras on Sunday should have had that effect on the team, but Mexico showed little sense of urgency against the Panamanians. Then again, a loss in Estadio Azteca should have forced Mexico to come out strong against Cuba in Friday's opener but instead only set the tone for what has mostly been a sluggish effort by Mexico.
Feeling as if progress has been made against Panama is a loss in and of itself. Panama is a team Mexico has beaten by scores of 7-1 and 5-0 this decade, and does not come close to matching Mexico's talented bunch player-for-player. Yet the Panamanians were unlucky to hit the post multiple times.
Panama had little problem finding holes in Mexico's defense. Mexico coach Hugo Sánchez trotted out three defenders who are very familiar with each other. Francisco "Maza" Rodríguez, Jonny Magallón and Carlos Salcido played three seasons together with Chivas de Guadalajara before Salcido departed for PSV Eindhoven last summer.
Still, even with Stuttgart's Ricardo Osorio in the backline, Mexico gave up plenty of space and scoring opportunities to Panama's speedy attackers. Poor marksmanship and some stellar saves by Oswaldo Sánchez kept Panama from scoring.
The match finished in a shutout, which at least on paper looks good. Mexico now has two shutouts in nine games since Hugo Sánchez took over.
But defense is not the only area of the field that needs improvement. Mexico's goal came off a set piece when Salcido slipped in a loose ball on a second-half corner kick. Including Sunday's loss, Mexico has scored a goal on a corner kick and another on a penalty kick.
El Tri also suffered from a bit of unluckiness. Nery Castillo slammed a shot off the post at the 30-minute mark on what was one of the few dangerous build-ups Mexico showed during the match.
With Cuauhtémoc Blanco unavailable because of his red-card on Sunday and subsequent suspension, Mexico lacked a player to play the ball through. Wide midfielders Andrés Guardado and Alberto Medina needed attacking help in the middle, help that Pavel Pardo and Gerardo Torrado could not offer.
Pardo started his career as a defender and later moved to the midfield line, but his worth seems mostly as a defensive midfielder, at least on El Tri. Torrado, meanwhile, has shown flashes of a scorer's touch -- his goal against Iran in a 4-0 rout on June 2 was a thing of beauty -- but his value also is on the defensive side of the ball.
Forward Jared Borgetti and Castillo are dangerous and, given the importance of Wednesday's match, perhaps will be the strike pair Sánchez will go with for the knockout rounds.
Castillo could be the wild card for Mexico. He's essentially a foreigner despite what his birth certificate says. The native son of San Luis Potosí came up through Danubio of Uruguay and joined Greek power Olympiakos as a teenager in 2001. With his Uruguayan and Greek influence, Castillo has flair and a pedigree different than his teammates.
With Castillo on the field, Mexico is without question a better team. He offers much more than Omar Bravo and Francisco "Kikín" Fonseca and could be a true difference maker both now and in the future.
Going forward, though, Mexico needs to be more dangerous and play like its usual aggressive and dynamic self. Sluggish 1-0 victories over Panama might be good enough to get through to the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup but don't necessarily leave future opponents trembling out of fear.
Hugo Sánchez is ridiculous, I felt he was a good forward in his playing days, but as a coach ... I don't know. What is he going to say now after he criticized Ricardo Lavolpe so much? How embarrassing. He gained the position by selling the "patriotic act" and Mexicans bought into it. Bottom line Mexico is not World Cup champs material. -- Ben Orellana, Houston
This American-born and raised Mexico soccer fan thinks Sánchez is a complete fraud of a coach. His success at UNAM was due to his Argentine assistants and Mario Carrillo. Also, why is Mexico trotting out the same, tired and near washed-up players like Morales, Oswaldo Sánchez and Blanco? How about some new blood? Where's Jesús Corona? Where is Luis Ángel Landín? Where is Juan Carlos Cacho? -- David Arámbula, Los Angeles
I think Sánchez got a lot of hype because of his two titles and because of the anti-Lavolpe sentiment many shared with him. I would also like to see him Sánchez breed some new players. For all the smack he talked about Lavolpe, Sánchez is using many of the players his predecessor counted on and even introduced into the national team, players such as Salcido, Guardado and Osorio.
Still, I feel that Mexico has not performed up to its capabilities, especially on the defensive end. But this is Sanchez's ship to sail now and his World Cup cycle to manage.