Elias Hernandez steps up as Mexico beat El Salvador in Gold Cup opener
SAN DIEGO -- Mexico defeated El Salvador 3-1 in its Group C Gold Cup opener in front of 53,133 fans in Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.
Here are three quick thoughts from the game:
1. Elias Hernandez wins it for El Tri
This was an individual performance of some notes from Leon winger Elias Hernandez. The 29-year-old has been a fringe national team player since he made his debut in 2010, but Hernandez stepped up into the limelight Sunday in some style.
Hernandez was involved in all three of Mexico's goals, scoring the second and assisting the two others. Playing on the left wing in the first half, Hernandez swung in the free kick from which Hegardo Marin headed in Mexico's opening goal after only eight minutes. But the real outstanding moment of the match came when Hernandez volleyed in a deep Jesus Gallardo cross to hand Mexico the lead after half an hour. It was an exquisite finish from a player who has now scored three goals in his past three games for Mexico.
Shifted out to the right after the break, Hernandez broke through 10 minutes into the second half and put in a dangerous cross for Orbelin Pineda to tap in. Watching him Sunday, it was easy to see why Hernandez was linked to Serie A sides earlier this year.
Meanwhile, this was a spirited display by El Salvador. The Central American team left three players upfield when defending corners and didn't sit back as much as other teams in CONCACAF usually do against El Tri. It made for an entertaining game. With better finishing, El Salvador could have made it a nervous end to the match. La Selecta will certainly believe that it can challenge Jamaica, which beat Curacao 2-0 earlier Sunday, for the second spot in Group C and a place in the quarterfinals.
As it is, Mexico immediately takes charge of the group with the victory and the fact coach Juan Carlos Osorio wasn't on the bench didn't become an issue. In the end, Hernandez wrote the headlines all by himself.
2. Mexico's defense shaky, lacking chemistry
When Marin headed in for Mexico's early opener, the immediate thought was that El Tri would steamroller FIFA's 103rd-ranked team. But only two minutes later, Nelson Bonilla had equalized courtesy of some lax defending.
El Salvador's goal was nice to watch and included a subtle finish from CD Nacional's Bonilla, but Mexico captain Hugo Ayala was a bystander as the striker ghosted in to level the score. It was a theme that repeated all too often for Mexico, especially in the first half, although it points to El Tri being an exciting team to watch at this Gold Cup.
In the 27th minute, Gerson Mayen lofted a shot just over after goalkeeper Jesus Corona had gifted possession to the wide player. Three minutes later, El Salvador's Bryan Tamacas had another chance, while just before halftime Ayala had to make a last-ditch tackle with Mexico's defense outnumbered.
Mexico can't afford to be so sloppy in possession, especially in its own half. It's not just that teams with more quality than El Salvador will take advantage; it's that sides better equipped to wait for Mexico's mistake and hit on the transition will be licking their lips with anticipation.
It's also exactly what Jamaica will hope to do on Thursday in Denver.
3. Osorio stays true to his blueprint
In the Osorio era, there's almost always head-scratching in the press box when Mexico's team sheet is handed out, and it was no different inside Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. There was a center back, Edson Alvarez, fielded as a right back, no recognized striker (although Angel Sepulveda played the position) and the wingers playing on the opposite flanks than they do for their club sides. On top of that, Marin isn't even a regular at his club Chivas and started only one Liga MX game for the champions in the first half of 2017.
Osorio may have been serving out the first game in his six-match suspension, but his trademark nuances in the team selection were very much on the team sheet.
Did it work? Mexico got the result in a pressure game but perhaps the fact assistant Pompilio Paez brought on Jesus Molina and Orbelin Pineda off the bench at halftime told the story of Mexico's midfield not being as solid as it should have been in the first 45. In the second half, El Salvador's opportunities on goal were restricted to efforts from longer range or set pieces, while Mexico's more solid base seemed to give the forward players more confidence.
Against better sides, the steel of Molina will surely be used, while Pineda showed with his goal and all-round game that he can be one of the stars of this Gold Cup if Osorio gives him more minutes.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.