By JUSTIN FERGUSON
ATLANTA — Although the scoring woes that have plagued the Mexican national team for most of 2013 came crawling back on Saturday night, El Tri is onto the semifinals of the Gold Cup thanks to a late goal.
Raul Jimenez scored in the 84th minute to push Mexico to a narrow 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in Saturday’s second quarterfinal from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Even with a double-digit save tally, Trinidad goalkeeper Jan Michael Williams was unable to stop Jimenez’s shot off of Miguel Layun’s cross.
The goal came as a huge sigh of relief for the Mexican team and most of the 54,229 fans in Atlanta on Saturday night as the match seemed destined for extra time.
“It wasn’t easy tonight,” Mexico head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre said through a translator after the match. “We knew it was going to be complicated because of (Trinidad & Tobago’s) speed, their height and that also made them very dangerous offensively. We had to be careful with their counter attacks.”
The two sides traded punches in what was a scoreless first half, with Mexico getting more shots off. El Tri forced Williams to make five first-half saves, including a 41st-minute stop on a hard Marquez Lugo shot.
Forward Kenwyne Jones and midfielder Andre Boucaud registered their squad’s two shots on goal in the first half. Trinidad & Tobago enjoyed a spell of control midway through the half, but Mexico closed the first half like it started it—on the front foot.
Trinidad & Tobago head coach Stephen Hart pointed to his squad’s missed opportunities in the first half as a turning point in the match.
“I thought that if we had scored in the first half, we would have put Mexico under some pressure,” Hart said. “It would have forced them to open up a bit.”
Mexico continued its control of the chances after halftime, but Williams was there to deny any shots on goal. The 28-year-old goalkeeper made two spectacular stops shortly after the hour mark, including a last-gasp fingertip save that made Jimenez’s powerful shot creep just over the crossbar.
Several of Mexico’s players noted the importance of staying patient in attack, especially in a match where the goalkeeper continued to make great saves.
“Their goalkeeper played a great game,” Lugo said afterwards. “I think that if he doesn’t have the night he had, we score one or two goals early, and we see a different game.
“I think the best thing we did tonight was not getting in a hurry. We know we have the pressure on us to win, and instead of playing crazy, we continued to play well on the ball.”
As the second half went on, Trinidad & Tobago slowly created their own chances. Jones came close once again in the 78th minute as his header following a corner situation was just a bit too high.
But Mexico found the goal it needed with six minutes of regular time remaining. Jimenez attached himself to the end of Layun’s low cross, and his close-range shot found its way past a diving Williams.
Layun, a former midfielder turned defender, made several great runs down the wing throughout the match, and his hard work in attack paid off in the end.
“I feel real comfortable in that part of the field,” Layun said. “I know I have to run back, and sometimes, that gets really tiring. But something great can happen like it did today, when I put that pass in for (Jimenez) to score.”
Trinidad & Tobago was unable to muster any chance of an equalizer in the final minutes, securing Mexico’s semifinal date with Panama at Cowboys Stadium on Wednesday in Arlington, Tex. The two sides have already met in the opening group stage match of this tournament, with Panama winning 2-1 at the Rose Bowl.
“(Panama) is not going to see the same Mexico that played in the first round,” Lugo said. “It is going to be a very different game.”