Mexico is heading to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, but not exactly in the most glory-filled manner.
Despite having a man advantage from the 25th minute on, Mexico needed another late, controversial penalty call to force extra time, where it ultimately prevailed over Panama 2–1 at the Georgia Dome to set up a final against Jamaica on Sunday at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field. Andres Guardado, just like he did in the quarterfinals against Costa Rica, converted the late penalty and then another one in extra time to keep El Tri alive.
Roman Torres's 57th-minute header off Eric Davis's corner kick had put Panama ahead. It was Torres who scored the winner in the 2013 semifinal triumph over Mexico as well, and he marshaled a back line that fended off Mexico's advances until the 89th minute. Torres fell on the ball in the Panama box and was whistled for a handball, and Guardado calmly converted from the penalty spot after a lengthy delay caused by unruly fans and infuriated players.
Guardado scored again from the spot in extra time—this one on a far more traditional penalty call—to seal Mexico's place in the final, where it will look to win a seventh regional title. Panama, meanwhile, will face the United States in the third-place game two years after both battled for the championship in Chicago.
Here are three thoughts on a match that capped an unusual night in CONCACAF at Atlanta's Georgia Dome:
CONCACAF chaos reaches new lows
And that's to say nothing of the current legal issues and investigation involving some of the region's most prominent names and executives over the past two decades.
This Gold Cup should be remembered for Jamaica's inspiring run to the final and upset of the USA; for Trinidad & Tobago's surprise showing in reaching the knockout stage; for Haiti's second-place finish in a brutally tough group. Instead, it'll be remembered for unruly fans throwing projectiles at players without consequences on multiple occasions in multiple games; dodgy refereeing decisions going entirely in Mexico's favor with games in the balance and an overarching sense that the soccer and competitive interests were secondary.
Now, to anyone watching CONCACAF over the years, insane shenanigans come with the territory, but this Gold Cup certainly feels like they've reached a new low.
It didn't take long for another questionable refereeing decision to go Mexico's way on Wednesday, and that was before the final act.
After Mexico ousted Costa Rica in the quarterfinals on the most controversial of penalty calls at the tail end of extra time, it was given another lift, this time from American referee Mark Geiger.
His 25th-minute red card to Luis Tejada for a high elbow on Maza Rodriguez while leaping for a 50-50 ball was highly questionable, and it changed the complexion of the game entirely.
With Panama already without the hobbled Blas Perez, removing Tejada—whose two goals were tops for Los Canaleros in the tournament—from the picture looked to severely hamper Panama's chances.
Even with Panama down to 10 men, Mexico didn't show any signs that it would threaten after Torres's goal put Panama ahead. That is, until Geiger—widely praised for his work in the 2014 World Cup—awarded the penalty to Mexico, deeming Torres's actions to be a PK-worthy handball.
Following a lengthy delay that featured benches going at each other and more projectiles thrown from the stands, Guardado sent the match to extra time, displaying the same calm demeanor that had him topple Costa Rica. The Univision Deportes call of the goal sums it up perfectly: "GOLLL DE MARK GEIGER, ARBITRO DE ESTADOS UNIDOS"
Geiger's extra-time penalty call that granted Guardado yet another spot kick was more traditional and reasonable, but by that point, the damage had long been done.
Panama's bench reportedly applauded sarcastically for Geiger, knowing its fate had been sealed on another night when nobody will be talking about the play on the field. Upon the final whistle, the entire Panama bench made a straight dart for Geiger, who had to be escorted off the field by a security force that was either too slow or too unprepared to deal with the events. An ugly way to finish an ugly night.
The region's narrative can change on a dime
In many corners, this was thought to be the USA's tournament to lose, and a chance for Jurgen Klinsmann to put the USA's stamp all over CONCACAF and reinforce that this is the Americans' territory. After winning the 2013 Gold Cup, finishing first in the World Cup qualifying hexagonal and entering the Gold Cup with momentum after friendly wins over the Netherlands and Germany, the U.S. entered with a stated goal, one it fell far short of reaching.
The fact that the USA still could reach the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup through an October playoff and that U.S. Soccer seems to be firmly behind Klinsmann regardless won't put the German manager on the hot seat quite yet, but the pressure is back on after a couple of months where it seemed the U.S. was on its way to another winner's podium.
Mexico manager Miguel Herrera, meanwhile, went from national hero for reviving El Tri last summer to the firing line, with rumors swirling about his future after an underwhelming showing at Copa America and now this Gold Cup. Herrera has guided Mexico to the final despite pre-tournament injuries to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Hector Moreno and a group-stage injury to Giovani Dos Santos, but even so, Mexico hasn't exactly played the part of deserving finalist.
Twice in the knockout stage it's been bailed out by refereeing decisions, and anything short of a triumph on Sunday will put Herrera right back in the Mexican federation's crosshairs.
The ultimate, and perhaps most staggering, takeaway is this: Jamaica has been the best, most consistent team in this tournament, and based on on-field exploits alone, the Reggae Boyz are in prime position to write another verse in CONCACAF's ever-changing book. Only three nations (USA, Mexico and Canada) have ever won the Gold Cup, but Jamaica is as viable a candidate as any to add to that list.
Vela's tournament of frustration
Carlos Vela was supposed to be the man to put Mexico's attack over the top, following his return from a three-year exile, but his Gold Cup was a forgettable one. Was, because even though Mexico has a game left, Vela won't be part of it.
Vela picked up a fourth-minute yellow card for a foolish elbow while jostling for positioning on a set piece. Paired with the yellow card he picked up in the quarterfinals, he's ruled out for the final.
Vela's lack of awareness is staggering for a player of his caliber and experience, and after the card, Vela continued to struggle, clearly missing something in the attacking third.
Perhaps it's because he's in preseason mode, but Vela's inability to finish chances that he buries with regularity for Real Sociedad nearly cost Mexico in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica before the penalty call in the waning seconds of extra time gave a new lifeline. He did score against Cuba and add a goal and assist in the wild 4–4 draw with Trinidad & Tobago, but given the anticipation for his role on the team—especially with the injury to Chicharito, which provided a chance to step up even more—Vela's Gold Cup has to be considered nothing short of a frustrating disappointment.