Concacaf: El Tri survives Panama, faces US in U-20 final

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 11: Diego Lainez of Mexico controls the ball during an international friendly match between Mexico and United States at Nissan Stadium on September 11, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 11: Diego Lainez of Mexico controls the ball during an international friendly match between Mexico and United States at Nissan Stadium on September 11, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

El Tri overcame a 2-goal deficit to tie Panama and advance to the Concacaf U-20 championship final.

Daniel López and Diego Hernández scored second-half goals as Mexico’s Under-20 team earned a tie with Panama that qualified El Tri for a championship match against Team USA.

Panama outplayed Mexico for 45 minutes in Bradenton, Florida, but went into a defensive shell to open the second half, and El Mini Tri took advantage of the opportunity to get into an offensive flow. Once Mexico found its rhythm, Panama was unable to turn the momentum back in its favor.

Mexico and Panama had both already qualified for the 2019 World Cup; Monday’s match was a group stage match that determined who advanced to the tournament final. The two teams were tied on points, goals and goal differential, so another tie could come down to cumulative yellow cards or a coin flip to decide the group winner.

Panama opened the match with more energy and desire, swarming in midfield, dominating the ball in the air and pushing forward in numbers. El Mini Tri appeared listless and uninspired. The forwards too often stood and waited for the ball instead of fighting for it and Panama was able to cut off Mexico attacks with ease.

When El Tri failed to track back in unison, Panama was able to find space and they let fly from distance on numerous occasions. By the half, the “Canaleros” had taken 14 shots. Although only 4 of those shots were on goal, several others were close enough that Mexico goalie Luis López spent much of the first 45 minutes sprawling across his goal mouth as shots whizzed past his posts.

In minute 34, poor marking set the stage for Panama’s first goal. Three Mexico players were caught out on the defensive left wing and when the ball was centered, all three turned and watched. After a ricochet and a drop pass, an unmarked Ernest Walker slotted home from near the penalty spot.

Just before the halftime whistle, Panama was awarded a corner kick and Walker rose above América defender Oswaldo León at the near post and headed home inside the near post.

El Mini Tri had no shots on goal despite 65% possession, most of it spent moving the ball from side-to-side across the back line. There seemed little chance Mexico could recover.

When Panama opened the second half in a defensive posture, allowing El Tri possession in more advanced possessions, Diego Lainez began to find room to operate and the crafty 18-year-old set Mexico’s offense in motion.

In the first 5 minutes, forwards Edgar López and Daniel López each missed glorious scoring chances. The latter missed a back-side header with an open net, skying it over the crossbar, and the former sprayed a close-in shot wide after Lainez had escaped two defenders along the touch line and dropped the ball off.

In minute 51, Lainez – the diminutive América midfielder – got loose on the left flank and hit a low cross that seemed destined for nobody but Panama defender Manuel Gamboa stuck out his arm and the penalty was whistled. Daniel López converted the spot kick.

Shortly thereafter, Mexico coach Diego Ramírez sent on the tournament’s leading scores José Juan Macías and his Chivas teammate Diego Hernández to bolster attacking options.

In minute 60, Lainez was trotting into the box at right when he collected a blocked cross, deked out two Panamanians then squared a pass to Hernández above the penalty spot and the sub chipped a right-footer that brushed the underside of the crossbar to the right of the goalie.

With the score tied 2-2, Panama moved its lines forward but could not stem the tide. Mexico had become more decisive and more accurate with its passes.

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In minute 64, Panama’s Maikell Díaz Pérez was shown a yellow card for arguing with the ref. That would turn out to be the difference.

Four minutes later, El Mini Tri almost scored off a corner kick, then followed that up with a long possession that frustrated the chasing Panamamanians. A bit later, Macías stole a pass, dribbled to the touch line, circled his marker and hit a low cross destined for a teammate at the back post but Panama goalie Marcos Allen knocked it away.

Lainez and sub Misael Domínguez began playing keep-away, Mexico lengthened its possessions and circulated the ball while showing positional discipline. With 7 minutes to go, Mexico almost knocked home the winner, but Allen blocked the first shot then parried the second around the post for a corner.

Panama forged one last chance, creating a counterattack in minute 85 that turned into a 2-on-2, but López made a nice save to preserve the tie. Then, as Lainez carried the ball through midfield, he was scythed down, a foul that deserved a yellow (though none was shown).

As the clock ticked down, Panama managed two more possessions in its attacking third but failed to get a shot on goal until the clock ticked 90. Off a corner kick, Axel McKenzie powered a header that bounced off the crossbar and Mexico’s Mario Trejo quickly cleared the rebound.

The game ended 2-2 with Mexico and Panama tied atop the Group H standings. El Mini Tri advanced to the final on Fair Play Points and will play Team USA on Wednesday.

Team USA defeated Honduras 1-0 in their final group stage match, qualifying for the final with an impressive 7-0 record while scoring 44 goals and conceding only 2. Mexico posted a 5-2-0 record with 37 goals and 4 goals allowed.