This was always meant to be a testing matchup for Mexico, which was playing the fourth game of manager Juan Carlos Osorio's six-game suspension due to using insulting words toward officials during the Confederations Cup third-match against Portugal.
Honduras, the aggravating, resilient team that gives you nothing in the final third, which had only conceded one goal up to this point during the Gold Cup tournament, was meant to be the ultimate challenge for Mexico’s young hopefuls. But where Mexico lacks in international experience, it makes up in offensive dominance as it took less than five minutes to get on the scoreboard. El Tri knew that the best way to fight a counter-attacking unit, which relies on loading up the midfield, is to go at it early.
And in the fourth minute, Rodolfo Pizarro took advantage of an inviting low cross from the assist king Elias Hernandez and made it 1-0. It was exactly what stand-in manager Luis Pompilio Paez and Osorio, who has still had a presence over this Gold Cup team from the stands and in preparation, needed, as finding goals against Honduras is extremely difficult, let alone early ones.
After the goal, the rest of the half became a fast, physical affair as Honduras imposed its physicality over the smaller Mexican side. It was not without consequences, however, as Alfredo Mejia and Romell Quioto were both booked before the half-hour mark.
But what Honduras has in physicality, it loses in creativity, as every time the Central Americans had the ball, it was low on ideas. Mexico ended the half feeling secure about its lead.
Here’s some food for thought for Honduras: When you have a back line with three center backs, the worst thing you can face is a team with a 4-3-3 formation because picking up the last man becomes incredibly difficult. And this is exactly what happened on Thursday, as both Pizarro and Angel Sepulveda, who was playing as a false nine and all over pitch, totally confused Honduras’s strategy.
That’s not to say Mexico didn’t need the services of Jesus Corona, as early in the second half, a deflected free-kick nearly crept in as well as a low shot from inside the box; both were well saved by the Cruz Azul goalkeeper. Corona was always going to use this tournament in order to impress, as a knee injury impeded him from taking part in the Confederations Cup. This was his summer tournament.
Osorio can take comfort in the fact that Mexico played at a much faster tempo and with a purpose, something that was lacking in the previous match against Curacao and perhaps throughout the Gold Cup thus far. There have been stages of good soccer, but nothing as consistent as a productive, well managed 90 minutes.
Thursday came close.
There was more fluidity in the final third, that you could see the development in chemistry throughout the squad. An unfortunate injury to Jesus Molina in the 65th minute probably disappointed Osorio as he was playing a great match up to that point.
All in all, this was a good evening for Mexico. Not just because of the victory but rather the manner in which the Mexicans won. There was a clear understanding throughout the team and even during its most vulnerable moments—of which there were some—Osorio’s men didn’t panic.
Not even in the 77th minute, when an audacious corner by Honduran substitute Alexander Lopez nearly went in, did El Tri lose nerve. And it was a ridiculous attempt.
Make no mistake about this, Honduras may not be creative but it is a tough team to beat and Mexico fought valiantly. Players such as 22-year-old Jesus Gallardo, for example, had a good evening, protecting the left-hand side from the dangerous Alberth Elis and even putting in some good crosses into the box when coming forward.
Mexico escaped in stoppage time as Honduras kept pushing for an equalizer, but in the end Osorio celebrated from the stands as Mexico reached its sixth consecutive Gold Cup semis, where it will meet Jamaica, a repeat of 2015’s final where Mexico won 3-1.
For Osorio, this should be another tough test against a physical, counterattacking side. The only difference is that the Reggae Boyz are more talented than Honduras, and there’s no doubt that redemption will be on their mind.
Mexico’s young unit must be prepared for a tough evening, but it will probably take comfort in knowing that the next match is in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl, and in many ways, it will feel like home.