The absence of a head coach who could make Bill Maher blush and roster regulars on the mend after a fourth place Confederations Cup finish were not nearly enough for El Salvador to outlast Mexico in San Diego on Sunday. Led by longtime assistant coach Luis Pompilio Paez in lieu of the suspended Juan Carlos Osorio, El Tri dictated the pace throughout the match thanks to its overwhelming time of possession giving way to a decisive 3-1 victory in Gold Cup group play. El Salvador plotted an aggressive approach early on with designs of exposing Mexico’s youth and general inexperience, but instead bore witness to the continued rise of Elias Hernandez.
The play of the Leon forward helped ease early defensive miscues by El Tri and bring cohesion to Mexico’s offensive attack. Sunday evening saw Hernandez notch his third international goal in the last two weeks along with two assists – the first from a set piece and the second off a cross – to secure Man of the Match honors in his 18th cap for country. Hernandez demonstrated the capacity to elevate the play of the other 10 men in green and bring fear to his opponents even when the ball wasn’t at his feet.
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Beyond Hernandez, Mexico benefited from younger players looking to make an impression during the Gold Cup with the 2018 World Cup looming. Jesus Gallardo assisted on El Tri’s second goal with a well-timed cross before switching to left back in the second half and Orbelin Pineda scored his first national team goal after coming on as a substitute for Luis Reyes. An even more unlikely offensive contribution came from center back Hedgardo Marin, who put El Tri on the board early with a header off of Hernandez’s free kick to find the back of the net.
“There is a new generation of players in Mexico, and they have to get used to playing in these types of games,” said Pompilio Paez. “Our objective is that some of them will make it to the World Cup.”
El Salvador would toy with making Sunday a more competitive affair by responding to Marin’s goal with a Nelson Bonilla equalizer two minutes later, but failed to capitalize on any ensuing attacks across the duration of the match. Mexico’s captain, Hugo Ayala, allowed Bonilla the necessary time to find the right shot, but would redeem himself by neutralizing a would-be goal scoring opportunity with a timely tackle just outside the box – a stop that could have opened the door back up for El Salvador. A veteran defender like Ayala knows that any continuance of such defensive lapses will be exploited early and often as Mexico faces more talented opponents deeper in the tournament.
The efforts of La Selecta come against a Mexico side constructed around a roster of three previously uncapped players with another 14 having seen the pitch for El Tri less than 10 times. Yes, Mexico was favored to win and yes, the expectation remains the same in securing an eighth Gold Cup title. But Osorio, anxiously watching the match from a suite at Qualcomm, should come away from Sunday’s victory optimistic about the future – both this summer and beyond – given the inspired performances by a variety of sources.
Group C play continues on Thursday in Denver where Mexico will take on Jamaica and Curacao faces El Salvador.