Mexico win in Osorio's absence, but dodgy defense must get sorted out
SAN DIEGO -- Mexico match-winner Elias Hernandez was in assured mood after El Tri defeated El Salvador 3-1 in the team's Gold Cup opener Sunday in San Diego.
"We are here to win, obviously," he said after the match. "It's clear we've come for the cup. We have a great group, a lot of quality, important players and we can achieve good results, but we have to take it step by step."
Hernandez was riding a wave of emotion and confidence after a match in which he assisted two goals and scored another. Mexico was the just victor against a spirited El Salvador, who will take heart from their own performance, and the win was especially important because it came with coach Juan Carlos Osorio under pressure.
Stand-in El Tri coach Pompilio Paez -- Osorio was serving the first of his six-game ban -- left Qualcomm Stadium content with what he saw, but there are areas this young and quickly thrown together squad will have to improve to go reach Hernandez's lofty goals.
"We leave happy, but we have to learn to have emotional control," Paez said, pointing to the fact El Tri allowed an equalizer just two minutes after Hedgardo Marin had opened the scoring. "This is a group of young players that haven't had frequent activity in similar tournaments and they still have to learn."
It was a fair and honest assessment from the Colombian, but later in the same news conference, he admitted there is another issue El Tri needs to fix: the defense.
"We were the national team that conceded most goals in the Confederations Cup, which was the result of us being an ambitious side, one that generated most goal situations," said Paez. "And in that respect we will work to have better defensive stability."
El Salvador managed to create a surprising -- and worrying, from a Mexican perspective -- number of opportunities. La Selecta had 12 shots against Mexico, which was actually the same amount as Germany had in Mexico's 4-1 loss in the Confederations Cup semifinal.
These are two different Mexico national team squads and these are early days at the Gold Cup, but if El Salvador could create as much as it did from taking advantage of Mexico's lack of concentration in playing out from the back, better teams will punish as this competition goes on.
But there was a major difference between the two halves. Paez took off Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez (who had picked up a yellow card) at half-time to replace him with Jesus Molina, while left-back Luis Reyes came off for Orbelin Pineda, who played on the left wing, with Jesus Gallardo moving to left-back. The team almost instantly looked more assured and solid with Molina in there. Hernandez is a ball of energy in central midfield and is a better distributor of the ball than Molina, but he can get dragged out of position and leave the defense open, especially if El Tri is playing with only one holding midfielder as Osorio usually does.
The defensive midfield or holding role is an area where Osorio has experimented more than most. He plugged in Hector Herrera during the Confederations Cup and he did well in possession, but there hasn't yet been a permanent solution, with the Porto player not the most astute defensively.
Diego Reyes, Rafa Marquez, Hernandez, Jonathan dos Santos, Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez, Herrera (to name just a few) all provide options. But El Tri almost seems to have the same conundrum as Real Madrid, with defensive midfielder Casemiro providing a solution by doing the dirty work to enable other more technical and creative players to shine.
There is significant attacking talent in this Mexico Gold Cup squad but without the pin to hold the team together in midfield, the side comes undone a little. It has certainly felt that way with Mexico of late, with teams taking advantage of losses in possession -- which El Tri usually dominates -- and hitting on the counterattack.
Osorio will be -- and will have -- thought long and hard about his options in central midfield. It boils down to Hernandez, Molina and Edson Alvarez at this Gold Cup.
It'll be interesting to see how the Colombian uses them moving forward. But as Paez recognized and the Confederations Cup taught Mexico, the openness opposition find when El Tri gives up possession can cost the team. Fielding a more recognized stopper like Molina in the heart of the midfield could be part of the solution.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.