Mini-Tri rides two 2nd-half goals into quarterfinals

Santiago Muñoz (#9) celebrates after scoring Mexico's second goal against Japan at the Under-17 World Cup. (Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Santiago Muñoz (#9) celebrates after scoring Mexico's second goal against Japan at the Under-17 World Cup. (Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images) /

Mexico’s Under-17 team marches into the final eight after an impressive display against Japan.

Captain Eugenio Pizzuto and striker Santi Muñoz nailed second-half goals to lead Mexico past favored Japan 2-0 at the Under-17 World Cup. The win earns the Mini-Tri a “fifth game” that its senior counterpart has so long coveted.

Of course, Mexico’s youth squads have not suffered the same curse as the big boys, twice hoisting the Under-17 World Cup trophy (2005 and 2011), reaching another final (2013) and finishing fourth once (2015). So this is not rarefied air for the Mini-Tri, but it appears to have been somewhat unexpected.

Mexico qualified for the Round of 16 as the best third-place team, earning a match against Japan, the winner of one of the toughest groups in Brazil 2019. The Japanese defeated Holland and Senegal, and played Team USA to a scoreless draw, while not conceding a single goal.

The first half of Wednesday’s match was played in a steady downpour, but the conditions didn’t adversely affect play. El Tri grabbed control of the match from the outset and spent the first 15 minutes probing the Japanese defense, creating three solid scoring chances. Efraín Alvarez was denied a goal after taking a nice lead pass from Pizzuto, then sent a screamer just wide of the net shortly thereafter.

Japan settled down after that and Mexico seemed to take a step back, ceding possession and space to the Asian squad. Marco Antonio Ruiz’s side absorbed the pressure well and kept Yamato Wakatsuki and Jun Nishikawa from finding room in front of goalie Eduardo García.

The Mini-Tri came out after halftime a bit out of sorts and Japan was buzzing around the box. Then, off a corner kick in minute 57, defender Alejandro Gómez came around the scrum in front of the net and volleyed the cross through a sea of legs. The ball ricocheted through to Pizzuto who was sitting right on the front porch and he whacked it into the side netting.

Mini-Tri beats Japan
Skipper Eugenio Pizzuto scored the opener for El Mini-Tri in minute 57, punching a loose ball home from right in front of net. (Photo by Buda Mendes – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images) /

After that, Mexico dropped its lines back into a prevent defense, scrambling to keep Japan from finding the equalizer. Nishikawa found a few looks at net, but couldn’t find the target and a lead pass to Wakatsuki was just behind him otherwise the wispy forward might have tied it up. A bit later, García made a fine save on Wakatsuki who had gotten free just above the penalty spot but the Chivas’ apprentice was in perfect position to block the low blast.

In minute 74, Mexico cleared the zone with a long ball that Muñoz controlled, shielding off a defender before turning onto his left foot and taking on another defender. The Santos academy product dribbled toward the top of the box and let fly with a right-footer that rippled the side netting inside the far post. El Mini-Tri led 2-0.

Mexico saw out the final 16 minutes and moves on to the quarterfinals where they will face South Korea on Nov. 10.

El Tri perseveres

Coach Ruiz is no doubt pleased with his team’s resilience, playing well under adverse weather conditions and standing up to a disciplined, talented opponent. Mexico won despite a sub-par performance from Alvarez, the young LA Galaxy star, who was careless with the ball, too often dribbling into trouble. He was subbed out in minute 64.

Dynamic winger Bruce El-Mesmari also struggled with his effectiveness. The Pachuca youngster was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and his technique, rarely sustaining build-up play. However, El-Mesmari was a demon on defense, exerting high pressure on the wings and tracking back to help his fullback time and time again.

Pizzuto and the defense made the difference, however. The skipper – also a Pachuca product – was steady in the midfield, directing flow on offense and organizing his line-mates on defense. Pizzuto nearly scored off a corner kick a minute before his opener, but his on-target header was deflected over the bar by a defender. The central defense pairing of Víctor Guzmán (Tijuana) and Alex Gómez (Atlas) was much improved upon their showing during the group stage. And goalie García demonstrated that he is on track to find a roster spot in Liga MX.

Wednesday’s result gives Mexico a small measure of revenge against Japan after El Tri’ss Under-20 team was trounced by Japan in a group stage game at the U-20 World Cup in Poland in May.