For over 90 minutes, Mexico was held by the 101st-ranked team in the world, its Gold Cup hopes appearing to be impossibly deferred.
One extra-time whistle later, and El Tri was back on course to a stage on which it is accustomed to performing.
Raul Jimenez's 93rd-minute penalty was all Mexico wound up needing to outlast Haiti in their Gold Cup semifinal in Glendale, Ariz., Tuesday night, winning 1-0 to book a trip to Sunday's final in Chicago. The call was not without dispute. Both Jimenez and Herve Bazile extended their legs high trying to make a play on the ball just inside the Haiti box. Jimenez won the ball first, Bazile's foot caught Jimenez's and that's all the referee needed to point to the spot. There's no VAR in the Gold Cup, so as soon as the call was made, it stood.
Given that there was clear contact and that Jimenez went down because of it, it's surely a penalty by the letter of the law and well within the referee's scope to call. But also taking into account that both were making a play on the ball, it seemed a more case of unfortunate circumstance for Bazile than anything else. No official is going to weigh the level of fight from an underdog in any decision, but for any neutral viewer, there was something unsettling about such a match being determined that way.
Nevertheless, Jimenez calmly dispatched his kick in the back of the net, Mexico survived both a stunning Mikael Cantave curler that hit the crossbar in the 119th minute and a missed sitter from its own Luis Montes in the dying seconds and ended the run for the tournament darlings.
It managed to do so with Tata Martino watching from a State Farm Stadium suite, with the manager banned from the touchline for the match for his actions in the quarterfinal win over Costa Rica, but he'll be field level for his first final as Mexico manager, having taken over in the winter.
As it has all tournament, Haiti didn't show up to roll over. It conceded plenty of possession (Mexico held 70% of the ball), was heavily outshot (27-11, 5-1 on target) and certainly bunkered at times, but it also pressed Mexico and countered when opportunity presented itself. Whether it was fatigue or just the end of the quality fuse, a pair of those counters late in the match wound up with flubbed chances, when it appeared that Guillermo Ochoa may actually be tested. In the end, there's little disputing that the better team–though not necessarily the most valiant–won on the balance of the night.
Regardless of the result, Haiti's run was nothing short of sensational. It won its group, beating recent World Cup regular Costa Rica after both had handled Bermuda and Nicaragua. It came back from two goals down vs. Canada in the quarterfinals, winning on a brilliantly worked goal. It held mighty Mexico, the competition's most successful side, and pushed El Tri to the brink before wilting just short of the final. And even then, it nearly had another storybook moment, only for Cantave's late attempt being a few inches too high to force penalty kicks.
So after all of that, it'll be two familiar teams in the Gold Cup final.
One on side, Mexico, the seven-time champion, which has persevered despite having plenty of A-list talent watching at home. On the other, it'll be either the second-most successful team in Gold Cup history in the USA (six titles) or Jamaica, which has played in the last two finals. The glory will go to one of those three, but the value of winning the Gold Cup, without the added incentive of a Confederations Cup (RIP) berth potentially looming for the winner, appears to be dwindling some, especially for Mexico and the USA. The competition, especially as Nations League play thrusts more smaller, inexperienced sides into the spotlight, figures to become even more about the Haitis and Curaçaos of the region and raising their levels. Haiti showed what's possible on this stage, and as it enters Nations League play in a suddenly decent-looking group with Costa Rica and Curaçao, it has a strong foundation on which to build this fall.