For Mexico, defeating five opponents to reach the Gold Cup final — where they will face their archrivals in the United States — wasn’t anything less than an obligation.
Had El Tri fallen to Honduras in the semifinals, Guatemala in the quarterfinals, or even unexpectedly had waved goodbye in the group stage, their participation in the regional tournament would have been a complete and utter disappointment. Even reaching the final might not be enough.
“I think Mexico, in a Gold Cup, always has to have a winning mentality,” said forward Giovani dos Santos following El Tri’s win over Honduras in Houston on Wednesday. “We have the players to do it. … We came to win this Gold Cup and the players’ mentality is to finish as champions or, honestly, I think everyone would see it as a failure.”
Mexico’s road to the championship match wasn’t a total walk in the park. Though they steamrolled their opposition in the group stage, El Salvador put up a fight before completely falling apart in the second half. In the quarterfinals, Guatemala gave the Mexicans a bit of a scare before El Tri came back from a 1-0 hole to win 2-1. And in their semifinal match on Wednesday, Honduras put up a big fight before Mexico broke through in extra time to triumph 2-0, setting up the huge title tilt against the US.
“It’ll be a special game between what I think are the two best teams in this Gold Cup,” said Tri captain Rafa Márquez.
“[The final vs. the US is] going to be great, trust me,” said left back Carlos Salcido, who’s a question mark going into Saturday’s match due to injury. “The US have a great team, great players. They’re always looking to be in this position, to be in the final. We’re the same way. We want to lift the cup.
“We haven’t lost a game and hopefully we’ll close out this Gold Cup,” he added. “We have worked well and I think the team deserves it, but it’s the final and you’ve got to leave everything [on the pitch].”
This year’s final between Mexico and the US offers an interesting twist: A couple of the faces featuring for each squad will be waging a friendly war. Over the last year, Salcido has formed a strong bond with American attacker Clint Dempsey at Fulham, while Márquez pairs up with US center back Tim Ream week-in and week-out for the New York Red Bulls.
Still, it doesn’t mean that they’ll take it easy on each other Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, especially when regional supremacy, pride, and a ticket to the Confederations Cup for further glory is at stake.
“This time around we’re going up against the United States, but we’ve got to win the cup, win that ticket to the Confederations,” said Salcido. “I think the group deserves it.”
While the two sides boast strong defenses — both teams have allowed just two goals through five games — the numbers on offense are largely skewed in favor of Mexico, who have scored 18 goals thus far in the Gold Cup, 11 more than the US.
Nonetheless, Mexico are wary about what the Americans can do if given just a little break.
“I expect the US to play us more directly, to be a more open game,” said Giovani. “The US are always a team you can’t be distracted against. They can make a difference on any play. They have good players up top, so we have to focus and be careful.”
As far as their strategy, the mischievous attacker said it’s quite simple: “We’ll keep bringing the game, do what we know how to do.”
When the ball rolls on the Rose Bowl pitch on Saturday, it’ll have been a long and tough 17 days since the start of the tournament. In the end, only one team will stand with their arms raised in victory. For Mexico, though they say they feel no pressure, they also know there’s no room for error.
“We’re all focused on winning the cup,” Giovani said. “Now you’re either the champion or you failed.”