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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
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 By Nayib Moran

Mexico's Erick Gutierrez on a mission to make statement in Gold Cup

HOUSTON -- Wearing his black cap backwards and talking to reporters after Mexico's 1-0 friendly win Wednesday over Ghana, Pachuca midfielder Erick Gutierrez didn't shy away from the spotlight. The 22-year-old midfielder, who's also been Pachuca's captain for over a year, knows that the cameras will be following him in the coming weeks.

Each move he makes will be analyzed. After Los Tuzos let go of their star player for a fifth consecutive transfer window, all signs point to "Guti" being next on the list.

With Hirving Lozano off to PSV Eindhoven, Guti becomes the face of Pachuca, a club that prides itself in the players who are brought up in its academy. Gutierrez is already one of the best midfielders in Liga MX, finishing the 2017 Clausura with the best passing accuracy at 88.4 percent.

What he needs to do, though, is prove once and for all to Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio and his staff that he's capable of competing for a midfield role against Andres Guardado, El Tri's most prominent left-footed midfielder at the moment. Guti, who's also left-footed, is not far off.

Gutierrez was among the promising players on Mexico's final Gold Cup roster, which was released Wednesday.

"I'm happy for the [Gold Cup] call-up," Gutierrez told ESPN FC after his performance alongside Rodolfo Pizarro in Mexico's left flank. "And well, Rodolfo, I've known him for a long time. We played a lot of years at Pachuca and we understand each other quite well.

"I'm happy to play alongside him, especially on the national team. I'm hoping that we have a great tournament because this is an opportunity for each one of us in the squad."

Gutierrez and Pizarro are two of four players on final Gold Cup list who represented Mexico's U-23 squad at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics last year, alongside Monterrey's Cesar Montes and Pachuca's Raul Lopez. In the group-stage match against Fiji, Gutierrez scored four of Mexico's five goals in 25 minutes -- one of them a masterful chip.

Erick Gutierrez's star is rising in Liga MX, and he is pushing for a regular spot in Mexico's midfield.

The understanding that Pizarro and Gutierrez have is going to be one of the keys for Mexico's success in the Gold Cup. But for the duo to shine, Gutierrez has to feel free on the field. He cannot have doubts whenever he sees an opening to send a through ball. He's coming off an excellent first six months to 2017.

"It has been a very important year for me, and to play in this Gold Cup will help me keep advancing with my career," Gutierrez said. "I know I still have a lot to give and in this tournament. I want to consolidate myself in the national team. I want to continue getting call-ups by Osorio and his coaching staff."

Lifting the CONCACAF Champions League trophy in front of Pachuca's faithful will definitely be a sight the native of Ahome -- in the Mexican state of Sinaloa -- will never forget. It should be a source of motivation and push him to become one of El Tri's leaders in the Gold Cup, especially considering that two members of the the squad are coming off May's U-20 World Cup: Edson Alvarez and Alejandro Mayorga.

"Nowadays, the Mexican footballer has a lot desire to go beyond and keep advancing," Gutierrez said. "We always want to win, each one of us who's part of this national team has the mentality to come out on top.

"We always want to leave our all on the field. But I still think we need to work because we're a team that's still coming together."

The team is still waiting on the arrival of three players -- Alvarez, Mayorga and Luis Reyes -- and the presence of Osorio, who sees in this squad, four to six players capable of competing for a spot in next year's World Cup. The injury to Alan Pulido will certainly switch up the planning inside the camp.

Gutierrez likes Osorio's philosophy for winning: What stands out is possession of the ball.

"Also, I see a lot of mobility in the team, the pressing, and the idea to always be aggressive," Gutierrez said.

An area where he will be fundamental is set pieces, where Osorio's Mexico has improved. Gutierrez will be among those called upon for corner kicks and free kicks.

"We have a great aerial game because we have a lot of great players who are dangerous in set pieces," he said.

Defensive midfielders Jesus Molina and Alvarez, and center-backs Jair Pereira, Hugo Ayala and Montes, will be the main targets.

Against Ghana, Gutierrez played more freely, knowing that in front of him he had a solid partner in Pizarro. Guarding his back was Pumas' Jesus Gallardo, one of Guti's closest friends in camp.

Mexico's left flank in the Gold Cup should be in good hands with Pizarro, Gallardo and Guti commanding it.

Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.

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