ATLANTA – Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre waited mere minutes after the 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday before trying to squash the inevitable line of inquiry surrounding the next opponent.
Revenge? What revenge? Panama's controversy-sparking, morale-crushing victory in the first match of the CONCACAF's 2013 Gold Cup for both teams will play no role in the semifinal meeting between the countries in Arlington, Tex. on Wednesday night ( live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET ), according to de la Torre.
"No, it's just another game," de la Torre said after Mexico's 1-0 victory at the Georgia Dome on Saturday. "It's our objective to qualify for the next round. It's really easy: we win, we move on to the next round."
It is never quite that simple when El Tri is involved. It certainly isn't that straightforward here, not after Panama inflicted an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to start this competition. De la Torre may not hold a grudge, but his players and his countrymen will not forget what happened on July 7 as this match approaches.
The defeat at the Rose Bowl increased the level of scorn and scrutiny heaped upon a group of players with little responsibility for the other failings suffered through during this tumultuous year. Instead of offering hope of a revival with all of the alterations, the opening day setback - ugly by just about any measure against a Panamanian outfit missing its two best players - wounded an already battered sense of pride.
<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/video?videoid=bfce4683-8758-4c09-ad3e-fd67037119a5&src=v5:embed:syndication:&from=shareembed-syndication" _cke_saved_href="http://msn.foxsports.com/video?videoid=bfce4683-8758-4c09-ad3e-fd67037119a5&src=v5:embed:syndication:&from=shareembed-syndication" target="_new" title="Mexico secures spot in semifinals">Video: Mexico secures spot in semifinals</a>
Ensuing matches applied some balm to the wound without curing it. Only success in September can truly dull the lingering pain and erase the pervasive doubts, but there is work still do and a title still to retain now. De la Torre and his players cling to the theme of gradual improvement throughout this tournament in the interim, a reasonable case somewhat weakened by the laborious, narrow victory against over the weekend.
Another modest step forward at Cowboys Stadium could see Mexico walk straight out of the tournament. The indignity of losing twice to Panama in the span of two weeks - even with a second team stripped of the domestic stalwarts and European-based stars - would probably turn that stroll into something of a run. And the vows within the ranks, at least, suggest this group isn't prepared to accept that fate with another dose of incremental growth. "They are not going to see the same Mexico that played in the first round," Mexico forward Rafael Márquez Lugo said. "It's going to be a very different game. For us, it is the same (as the win over Trinidad) because it will be very tough, but I think we have a lot of possibilities if we continue growing as we are doing game by game."
In this latest stage of the painfully gradual evolution, El Tri must finish the chances presented in the final third more ruthlessly. Panama will not cede ground as easily as Trinidad did on Saturday. Julio Dely Valdes has maintained the staunch defensive shape without captain Felipe Baloy (omitted from the squad due to club commitments with Santos Laguna ). This isn't the sort of match where another chance comes along swiftly after the last. If and when those opportunities arise, they cannot go to waste.
Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre's Mexican side will seek to avenge their group stage loss to Panama (Photo: Henry Romero/AP Images).
Nor can Mexico enter this game without a solution to the direct play it found so unsettling just a few days ago. Kenwyne Jones caused plenty of problems for the tender defense when Trinidad moved briskly from back to front. Blas Perez (absent from the first match due to club duties with FC Dallas , but likely to start here) and Gabriel Torres pose similar threats in this affair. The back four must submit a deft (fewer free kicks conceded) and resolute (more grit shown in the middle of the back four) effort to ensure those concerns do not turn into genuine issues. And the potential return of Jorge Enríquez (hamstring) to strengthen the midfield would help to avert a few of those potential problems, too.
By and large, the broad strokes of the first game - Mexico holding possession and searching for openings, Panama waiting for its chance to play quickly out of the back - should emerge once more. Whether this match unfolds along the same exact lines hinders on whether Mexico can buttress its claims of progress with the complete performance required to book a place in the final.
"It's going to be different," Mexico defender Miguel Layún said. "We have had a few more games to get to know ourselves and work with our teammates. We had a really short time to prepare for this tournament. I think that's going to be the difference. I think we're getting better over the past few days. It's going to be a really interesting game, I think." Intrigue isn't the top priority, though. Not after the defeat Panama doled out in the opener. Not with a title to protect. Right now? It is all about a return to devastating normalcy and a showing that removes all doubt about this team and its place in the final. Oh, and maybe just a hint of retribution, too.