Memo plays hero as Mexico sweats out shoot-out win

Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico celebrates after saving the penalty of Keysher Fuller of Costa Rica to win the penalty shootout during the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico celebrates after saving the penalty of Keysher Fuller of Costa Rica to win the penalty shootout during the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images) /

El Tri survives nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica, advances to semifinals to face Haiti.

The cleansing relief that comes after a penalty shoot-out victory will erase some of the frustration of a second consecutive sloppy performance by El Tri. But when Memo Ochoa made a lunging save on Costa Rica’s sixth penalty shot to give Mexico a 5-4 shoot-out win after a 1-1 draw, the tension release was tangible.

Coach “Tata” Martino will have plenty to criticize when he watches the tape, but following 2 hours of drama on the soccer pitch, his locker room was a rowdy mix of exultation and nervous exhaustion. The X’s and O’s will come later.

After escaping Costa Rica’s upset bid, Mexico moves on to the Gold Cup semifinals where it will face surprise contender Haiti, a 3-2 winner over Canada in the Saturday’s other quarterfinal. They’ll play Tuesday in Glendale, Arizona.

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Jamaica plays Panama and Team USA faces Curaçao in Sunday’s remaining quarterfinals.

Mexico played a rather sloppy first half (an 81% pass completion rate), misreading teammates’ moves, failing to communicate, indecisive on the ball, getting out-hustled by Costa Rica, holding the ball too long and losing possession, shooting when you should pass to the open man or passing when a shot is available. You describe a mistake, and there was an example of it during the first 35 minutes of the game.

It didn’t help that Panamanian ref John Pitti appeared to be out of his league. Several of his calls were mind-boggling; his tendency to blow the whistle instead of allowing advantage to be played frustrated “Tata” to no end (coach Martino would earn a yellow card in the second half after he exploded following yet another blown call by the ref). But we’ll talk about the ref further along.

Raúl Jiménez got Mexico on the board in minute 44 with a tremendous individual effort. El Tri pushed forward on a second consecutive break-out with Rodolfo Pizarro chasing a through pass down the left wing and zipping an early pass to Jiménez on the front side. Jiménez one-timed a shot with his left foot but his marker stuffed the shot, the ball squirting back to Jiménez who faked a shot with his right foot, touched it forward a couple feet and fired a quick shot through the defender’s legs. Goalie Leonel Moreira did not even have time to react and El Tri led 1-0.

Absence of VAR hurts Mexico

Mexico appeared a bit more comfortable when the second half opened, but when Costa Rica cleared a corner kick deep, Mexico defenders “Chaka” Rodríguez and Jesús Gallardo played “you got him, right? Oops neither do I” and allowed Joel Campbell to take the ball and dribble toward the box. “Chaka” chased him down and tackled the ball inside the half moon and

Mexico escapes Costa Rica upset bid
Mayron George of Costa Rica and Carlos Salcedo battle for the ball during Saturday night’s epic Gold Cup quarterfinal match at NRG Stadium in Houston. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images) /

Campbell went down because as he tried to kick a ball that was no longer there his foot got tangled with Chaka’s foot. Ref Pitti pointed to the spot.

Because there is no Video Assistant Replay in the Gold Cup (explain that to me, please!), ref Pitti’s mistake was not corrected. It was neither a foul, nor was it in the penalty box. Carlos Salcedo ran to the assistant referee and asked if he saw what really happened. To no avail.

Costa Rica skipper Bryan Ruiz converted the penalty kick the score was tied 1-1.

Then followed 70 minutes of rough-and-tumble Concacaf soccer. The game slowly tilted toward the Costa Rican goal and El Tri generated oodles of scoring opportunities and squandered almost all of them. Goalie Ochoa prevented an embarrassing loss with a brilliant save let in regulation after virtually the entire Mexico defense fell asleep thinking offside would be called. Instead, Costa Rica chased down the ball and got free for a shot from 15 meters that Ochoa somehow got his mitts on.

Uriel Antuna tried to shoot through a forest of legs when he had passing options. Captain Andrés Guardado shot wide on a fast break. Jiménez skimmed the crossbar with an off-balance shot from 10 meters. Pizarro fired high from 15 meters after a brilliant tic-tac-toe exchange with Monterrey teammate Carlos Rodríguez, who came on in minute 84 for Guardado. Pizarro then misdirected a header from 10 meters. The intensity was fever pitch for all 120 minutes … and penalty kicks were required to settle the contest.

Mexico’s Jiménez was stopped by Costa Rica’s Moreira on the first shot of the session, but El Tri hit their next five shots. Tico midfielder Randall Leal shot his team’s third shot wide left so the score was tied 4-4 after 10 shots. The shoot-out moved into sudden death.

Defender Carlos Salcedo strode up to the spot and rolled his shot firmly just inside the left post as Moreira dived the wrong way. Up next was Costa Rica right back Keyshor Fuller. He fired his shot, Memo Ochoa lunged to his right, stretched his arms as far as he could and parried the ball aside with his right palm. The roughly 65,000 Mexico fans shrieked with joy as Memo leaped to his feet, his arms raised in celebration.

Mexico will have to come back down to earth and somehow get enough rest to be ready for Haiti, while at the same time “Tata” Martino will have lengthy tactical and technical drills to go over. Mexico showed heart and grit, but the head is where work need to be done. If El Tri fails to pick up its game and play smarter, there will be more heartache.