DENVER – It took two full games - and arguably several months, based on the performances from the first team - for Mexico to emerge from its doldrums and return to its core qualities for a protracted spell.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Mexico looked a bit like Mexico in the first half of the 3-1 Gold Cup victory over Martinique : deft work in tight spaces, overlapping fullbacks creating width and providing service into the box and persistent threats to score at seemingly every turn.
Martinique aided the cause significantly by refusing to pack the midfield, but El Tri deserves credit for taking advantage of the landscape presented to it before dropping off significantly in the second half. Instead of squandering the opportunity to combine and play, it finally grasped the game firmly and validated Jose Manuel de la Torre's insistence that this side continues to improve with each passing match. "I think the first half was the first time we played," Mexico midfielder Alejandro Castro said. "We got two goals. It was important. We have to practice and try to do that again."
The swashbuckling nature of those first-half goals - Marco Fabián's acrobatic finish to sweep home a rebound stemming from a two-versus-one opportunity and Luis Montes' rasping drive from distance - and the late clincher from Miguel Ponce stood in stark contrast to the fortunate tallies snatched against Canada on Thursday. The confidence provided by the victory in Seattle told here in the desire to chase the game early and string together the sort of work in the final third expected from this talented outfit.
"For us, it was a good thing for us," de la Torre said in his native Spanish. "We did some things right. It's a matter of appreciating each person's point of view (about whether Martinique's failings helped). I think the team did create good plays in the first half and in the second half."
Even de la Torre conceded those moments occurred more intermittently after the interval. The tempo dropped substantially as both teams weighed the merits of expending more energy after Panama secured the top spot in Group A with a 0-0 draw against Canada in the opening match.
A rather drab second half display probably fell below the tenuous reliability of the rearguard on the list of pressing issues, though. In its haste to push the fullbacks up the flanks (Miguel Layún served in several enticing crosses from the right, in particular) and slice through pliant opposition, Mexico again exposed defensive concerns that could prove fatal in the later rounds if left unaddressed. Martinique established a foothold in the game from the penalty spot after a rash Layún tackle three minutes before halftime, while centerbacks Joel Huiqui and Juan Carlos Valenzuela found themselves pulled out of position to compensate frequently as El Tri pressed its initiative.
Although the knockout round will force future opponents to adopt a more pragmatic approach and restrict the sort of endeavor that tends to unsettle El Tri, the underlying frailty remains a pressing problem for de la Torre and his charges to address before their quarterfinal tie in Atlanta on Saturday.
"We have a lot of things to improve in the midfield and in the defense," Castro said. "We have to be more careful with some things."
De la Torre echoed those sentiments even as he reinforced the progress made within the group. He reinforced his continued contention that the team improves little by little with each passing match. The results on the field buttress those claims, but an expectant public will demand more as the stakes increase and the opposition poses a more menacing threat.
"I think the team is working hard to get there," de la Torre said. "I think we're going from less to more, which is better than going from more to less. Every time, we'll be facing better rivals and stronger rivals. We'll have to work harder to get those results."
At some point, the work must translate into a complete performance. This display certainly did not fall into that category, but it offered some hope that the pieces are in place to meet those lofty standards at some stage during the tournament. And that sort of promise - and the fleeting glimpses of a side capable of pushing onward from here - represents a welcome sign of modest progress after the persistent struggles over the past few months.